West Jefferson Hills hall of fame set to induct 24 in Class of ’24

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Sunday, January 21, 2024 | 11:01 AM


There’s a nice symmetry.

A group of 24 Thomas Jefferson graduates or district contributors, along with two championship-caliber teams, will be inducted into the West Jefferson Hills School District Hall of Fame in March.

It’s the Class of ‘24.

TJ graduates who have distinguished themselves in the areas of academics, arts or athletics, as well as teachers/staff and community members, are eligible for induction.

Nominees have included former students, teachers, staff and community members who have made unique and lasting contributions to the United States, worldwide and to the district, including the West Elizabeth, Jefferson Hills and Pleasant Hills communities.

“We had a memorable inaugural Hall of Fame induction last year and are excited to welcome the members of the Class of 2024,” Superintendent Dr. Janet Sardon said in a news release. “They are role models and mentors and strong representatives of who we are and who we want to be as a school district.”

The induction ceremony will take place March 9 at the Georgetown Centre in Pleasant Hills. Here is this year’s distinguished HOF class:

Athletics

Pedro Bowman (1981)

Bowman was honored as the Class AAA Player of the Year and Breisinger Award winner as a senior at TJ. He was a two-time all-state and all-conference selection, one of the “Finest Fifty at 50” gridders in school history and was chosen to compete in the Big 33 Football Classic.

Bowman was a hard-nosed 5-foot-8, 174-pound fullback/nose guard who went on to a four-year hall of fame career with Duquesne and held the school record (41) for touchdowns for 35 years.

Bowman turned in what is considered one of the greatest WPIAL championship game performances in 1980. Bowman rushed for 203 yards and two scores on 23 carries against Aliquippa, leading the Jaguars to a dominating 28-8 win against the previously undefeated and heavily favored Quips, who had seven future major-college players on the team.

It was the first WPIAL title in football in school history in legendary coach Bap Manzini’s final year of coaching at TJ. It remains one of the most memorable championship games in WPIAL lore.

Bowman and offensive backfield mate Darnell Stone, who went on to play for Pitt, finished with 1,495 and 1,153 yards rushing in 1980, sparking the Jaguars to a 12-1 overall record.

Dave Branchen (1987)

As the captain of the TJ boys basketball team, Branchen was lauded as a WPIAL Terrific Twenty selection in his senior season.

He graduated from Washington & Jefferson in 1991 as the Presidents’ all-time scoring leader with 1,552 points, holding the team record for 12 years. Branchen was a four-year starter and was voted into the W&J hall of fame.

He led the Presidents in scoring, rebounds, blocked shots, field goal percentage and steals in each of his last two seasons. He twice was named all-conference and following his junior year was lauded as the conference’s co-MVP.

Evan Browne (2005)

Browne competed in four sports in high school and earned 10 varsity letters. He was a member of the teams that won inaugural PIAA titles in football and soccer.

Browne was a kicking specialist/wide receiver for the Jaguars and was named all-state in soccer.

Browne was a four-time WPIAL champion, 2004 regional all-American, section player of the year, two-time all-section, all-WPIAL and all-state selection on the pitch and was a Tribune Review Elite 11 selection. He also was honored as a WPIAL Scholar-Athlete of the Year.

“I am deeply honored to be selected to the West Jefferson Hills Hall of Fame. I can’t thank the Hall of Fame committee enough for considering me with this prestigious award,” Browne said. “I was humbled and beyond grateful when I found out I was selected to the HOF with the amazing tradition and legacy of the many student-athletes that have come through Thomas Jefferson.

“The happiness and excitement from my 8-year-old son when he found out I was selected has made this honor one of the most memorable events in my lifetime.”

Browne was a four-year letterman and two-year team captain in soccer and led both the soccer and football teams in scoring as a senior.

“The joy of celebrating the first PIAA state championships with my teammates and coaches for both football and soccer is the fondest memory of my athletic career at TJ,” Browne said.

He continued his soccer career at Duquesne.

Since 2010, Browne, 37, has worked for the Department of Justice. He and his wife Jenna and two children Easton and Emmy moved from West Virginia back to the West Jefferson Hills area in 2019.

“I would like to thank my parents (Pat and Janet) for all their support and encouragement,” Browne said, “and to my coaches, Doc Kulish and Bill Cherpak, for working together to help me achieve all my success at Thomas Jefferson.”

Scott Buckiso (1985)

Buckiso lettered in four sports and won a WPIAL wrestling crown in 1985 in the 138-pound weight class. He finished 36-3 and fourth in the state in 1984-85.

Buckiso hails from a wrestling family. His brother, Kale, two uncles, Mike and Scott, as well as his dad, Dave, wrestled at TJ. And three cousins, A.J., Mike and Ty, competed at Peters Township.

Buckiso continued his career at Maryland, where he was a team captain and won two ACC championships. He currently serves as a senior vice president and chief manufacturing officer with U.S. Steel.

Dan Crisp (1973)

A three-sport standout in football, basketball and track, Crisp, a wide receiver/defensive back, was named all-state in football as a senior and, on the hardwood, led his section in scoring at 18.5 ppg. On the track, Crisp broke the state record in the high hurdles.

Crisp also was an all-conference selection in 1972. He continued his career at Georgia and was a letterman during the 1976 season.

Chris Drager (2007)

Drager was a 6-4, 235-pound tight end and defensive end at TJ and helped the Jaguars win their first PIAA title in football in 2004. He had a school-record 12 touchdown catches as the team’s leading receiver in 2006.

His postseason accolades included Class AAA all-state first team at tight end, a Big 33 Classic selection and three-time all-conference honors.

Drager was a National Honor Society member who averaged 17.9 yards per reception during his career and finished with 21 career sacks on defense. He helped lead the Jaguars to a 39-5 record. He also lettered in basketball and track.

In college, Drager was an academic all-American at Virginia Tech and played on the team that won the 2009 Orange Bowl. His older brother Jon played at Kent State and faced the Hokies once.

Drager also had offers from Pitt, West Wirginia, Stanford, Maryland, Cincinnati, Vanderbilt and South Florida.

The 35-year-old Drager currently is serving in the U.S. Air Force at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey.

“I’m honored to have competed for Thomas Jefferson and to be selected into the WJHSD Hall of Fame,” Drager said. “Our district has countless successful individuals and families, and we are one of the best communities in the entire state. I’m extremely proud to represent WJHSD and will continue to do so moving forward.”

His initial reaction when he found out about his HOF selection?

“I was surprised, particularly upon discovering it was for athletics,” Drager said. “I never had particularly good measurables and grew up in the same household with a better athlete than myself. I suppose some nonathletic factors were also considered into my selection decision.”

Drager said he relishes the friendships he developed as a TJ football player.

“I enjoyed the camaraderie among my teammates,” he said. “Most of us grew up playing PHARA football since the age of 7, and we had strong friendships and chemistry that largely continue today.

“We were great friends, but we were also great competitors. It was an excellent recipe for success in sports.”

Nikki Presto Feathers (2006)

A three-year captain on the TJ girls basketball team, Presto led the Jaguars to section titles in 2005 and ’06. She was a 5-5 point guard with amazing quickness who averaged 20 points, five rebounds, five assists and five steals per game as a senior and graduated as TJ’s all-time leader in assists, steals and 3-point field goals.

Presto was named to the MSA Sports Top Ten Girls Netters team, the Daily News Girls Player of the Year, team MVP and was the recipient of the Scholar-Athlete Award.

A National Honor Society member, Presto also competed in track and softball in high school.

“I am honored to be selected to such a prestigious group of Thomas Jefferson alumni and leaders,” she said. “I was so fortunate to grow up with wonderful teachers and great coaches. Looking back now, the community spirit and support are unmatched. I was so proud to wear a Thomas Jefferson uniform for four years, and I’m grateful for the life lessons it afforded me.”

Presto was a four-year starter at Slippery Rock, where she majored in health and physical education and was considered one of the top point guards in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.

She ended her career ranked eighth in minutes played (2,418), ninth in assists per game (3.0), 10th in total assists (288) and eighth in field-goal percentage (45.4%).

Presto served as a co-captain in her senior season. Her recent HOF selection became an instant family affair for the Presto household.

“I was actually with my siblings and parents when I received the news,” Presto said. “It was a perfect time to share the news with the people I care about the most.

“My parents have traveled the country to support my passion since I was in elementary school. I will forever be grateful for their influence on me as an athlete and a leader.”

Presto eclipsed the 1,000-point mark in career scoring at TJ and was a two-time all-section selection.

“I just loved competing with my teammates,” Presto said. “We always had a chip on our shoulder when we played bigger schools. We truly expected to win every game regardless of the opponent.

“Of course, nothing can replace the bus rides, locker room fun and playing with my little sister, Amanda, for two seasons.”

Presto has been a health and physical education teacher in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District for 12 years. She formerly coached the girls basketball teams at Baldwin and Keystone Oaks.

“I have hit the occupation lottery,” Presto said. “I love staying active and sharing my love of sport and wellness to the next generation.”

Presto, 35, lives in Dormont with her husband, Lucas, and their two children, Leo and Marlowe.

“Our kids are starting to take an interest in sports,” Presto said, “so you may see me coaching and stomping my feet on a sideline again someday.”

And while teaching and coaching outside the WJHSD for more than a decade, Presto definitely hasn’t forgotten her roots.

“The community spirit — black and gold pride — is truly special,” she said. “I don’t think I ever took it for granted, but in hindsight, I realize how important the entire community impacted my youth. The youth programs, parent support, teachers and coaches give student-athletes and their teams a chance to be successful.

“Put simply, Thomas Jefferson was a special place to grow up.”

Gary Gomolak (1975)

Gomolak earned all-conference, all-district and all-WPIAL honors in football and basketball at TJ and was an all-state selection in football.

The 6-3, 200-pound Gomolak was a tight end and safety in high school and broke school records for interceptions in a season, touchdown receptions in a season and career interceptions.

He still ranks among the team’s leaders in career interceptions (13) and interceptions in a season (10).

“I feel very fortunate to have grown up in WJHSD and attend TJ,” Gomolak, 66, said. “I think WJHSD is doing great things to support their students, faculty and alumni at such a great academic and athletic high school. It is very nice to be recognized at such a prolific high school with the outstanding reputation it has. There are so many talented individuals that have accomplished great things at TJ during and after they graduated.

“I feel humbled after all these years. It is nice that folks still remember individuals after almost 50 years after playing and attending TJ. It is such a great group of inductees.”

When discussing his athletic career with the Jaguars, the word “great” flows freely from Gomolak.

“Great students, great teachers, great coaches,” he said. “I would not have experienced the success without great teammates and coaches like Bap Manzini, Tom Sharkey and George Zilko who gave me an opportunity.

“I also had a pair of great quarterbacks like Keith Potts and Tim Yanik who were excellent at their position.”

Two of Gomolak’s favorite high school flashbacks involved rival Ringgold. He said among his greatest memories were “co-winning the conference championship in football my junior year after beating Joe Montana and Ringgold, 7-6, and beating Ringgold in basketball on their home court in my senior year to break their long-standing unbeaten record.

“And I think this is worth mentioning, given the timeframe of inductees: Mrs. Biddle was my wonderful second-grade teacher. Mr. Sharkey was my teacher at Pleasant Hills Middle School and my eighth-grade basketball coach and assistant high school coach. Dan Crisp was my older teammate in football and basketball.”

Gomolak was an all-state selection on defense in 1974 and continued his career at Virginia, where he lettered in 1977 and 78.

The TJ product tried out for the Steelers as a free-agent tight end following his college career.

Gomolak is retired and currently lives out of state with wife and two children.

“From different work I did and the problems I saw throughout our country, it makes me appreciate how great an area WJHSD was to grow up in,” he said, “and how wonderful and safe TJ was. I still try to follow TJ news and their continues success the best I can.”

Charles Mozingo (1971)

Mozingo captured WPIAL and PIAA championships in the 440-yard run in 1971, becoming TJ’s first individual state champion. His 48.6 time in the 440 remains a team record.

Mozingo continued his track career at Pitt and earned All-IC4A honors five times.

Mike Reilly (1963)

As class vice president, Reilly led the TJ baseball team to a section title and the WPIAL finals in the club’s first year of existence. Reilly hit .407 and posted a 9-2 record on the mound.

Reilly also competed in basketball and twice averaged 16 ppg.

Grace Ninesling Whelan (2011)

Ninesling graduated No. 3 in her class and was the first TJ swimmer to qualify for the PIAA swimming championships, which she did twice. With the Jaguars, she set team records in five events, was an all-state selection in the 50-yard freestyle and earned four varsity letters.

Ninesling then swam for Penn State and was honored as a U.S. Army Reserve National Scholar-Athlete. She competed at the Big Ten championships in the 50 free, 100 free and 100 breast for the Nittany Lions.

“It’s an honor to be selected for the HOF. My initial reaction was pure surprise,” said Ninesling, who is 30. “I moved to Pittsburgh from Texas when I was 15, and the TJ community was immediately so welcoming to me.

“It’s a great feeling to be etched into the TJ history. My time there was very special. My fondest memories involve being on the swim team. At the time, TJ had no pool, so we would practice at other pools like Steel Valley or Elizabeth Forward. We spent a lot of time on the bus going to and from those pools. I also enjoyed competing at WPIALs at Pitt and states in Hershey. Little did I know that a few girls at those meets from other schools would end up being my teammates at Penn State.”

Ninesling married Brett Whelan in August of 2022 and now works in cybersecurity.

“My husband and I met while living in Texas and are currently based in Kansas City,” Ninesling said. “We’re expecting a little boy in May.”

Chase Winovich (2014)

Winovich played linebacker and quarterback at TJ, where he committed to Michigan over offers from Arizona, Arkansas, Florida State, Missouri, Northwestern, Ohio State, Pitt, Tennessee, Virginia Tech and West Virginia. At times, he also played safety and was a return specialist.

The 6-3, 217-pound Winovich was an all-state and Big 33 Football Classic selection in high school and was a four-year letterman at Michigan, earning team MVP and second-team all-American honors with the Wolverines.

Winovich joined the likes of TJ football products Cole Costy, Noah Palmer, Dom DeCicco, Chris Drager, Brock DeCicco, Nate Nix, Lucas Nix, Brad Dawson, Tyler Reed and Michael Wainauskas to be selected to play in the Big 33 all-star in recent years. The most recent TJ player in the game was Dom Serapiglia at the center position for the Pennsylvania squad.

“I played in (the Big 33) in 1985 and have great memories and many relationships developed through the game,” TJ coach Bill Cherpak said. “It really is more than just a game. It is a great way to finish an incredible high school career.”

Winovich agreed with his high school mentor, the third-winningest coach in WPIAL football history.

“It’s an honor to be selected for the Big 33 game,” Winovich said. “There have been so many big-time players who have played in it and represented Pennsylvania.

“When I started working out as a freshman (at TJ), I thought about what I wanted to achieve in my high school career, and down the road I thought playing in the Big 33 would be an awesome achievement. I thought it would be cool. I heard so much about it growing up and the history of it. It’s a great accomplishment in my life.”

Winovich was a third-round draft pick by the New England Patriots in 2019 and led the team in sacks in 2020. He also was a member of the Cleveland Browns organization (2022), Houston Texans (2023) and Miami Dolphins (2023).

Winovich retired from the NFL in October. He has spent time in his offseasons in Portsmouth, N.H.

On a philanthropic note, Winovich, 28, works with The ChadTough Foundation to raise awareness and money for research on diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), an inoperable malignant tumor of the brain stem.

2007 Thomas Jefferson football team

The 2007 squad won Thomas Jefferson’s fourth WPIAL and second PIAA Class 3A championship with a 16-0 record.

The Jaguars, under Cherpak, defeated Montour, 34-0, in the WPIAL finals and Garnet Valley, 28-3, in the PIAA championship game.

TJ outscored opponents by a lopsided 590-133 margin and had three shutouts in 2007. The Jaguars set team records for points in a game (73), points in a half (59) and wins in a season. Kicker Dan Braun broke the team record for PATs in a season with 72.

The Jaguars were led on offense by quarterback Zach DeCicco (Slippery Rock), tailbacks Orlando Torres and Arthur James, two-way tackle Lucas Nix (Pitt), tight end Brock DeCicco (Wisconsin), fullback Nate Bota, linemen Pat Eger (West Virginia) and Rob McCall and wide receivers Dan Virgin, Trevor Wildman and Jimmy Giansante (New Hampshire).

Returning starters on defense included Nix, Wildman at cornerback, linebackers Dave Bishoff and Matt Hufford and end Cory Smith.

Zach DeCicco, Wildman, Torres, Braun, Bota, James, Nix, Bishoff and Smith were seniors, as were WR/DB Sam Scheidter, WR/DB Keith Siemen, WR/LB Corey Mathews, WR/DB Bill Helmick, WR/DB Fred Huebner, WR/DB Logan Breisinger, WR/LB Brian Grant, TE/DL Drew Albrecht, TE/DL Tom Yogan and WR/DB Karl Troetschel.

Nix went on to play for the Oakland Raiders in the NFL.

2014 Thomas Jefferson softball team

The 2014 club captured the school’s first WPIAL softball title as the No. 13 seed in Class 3A, improving from a three-win team in 2013. The Jaguars were coached by Heidi Karcher.

TJ’s batting order in the championship game was: 1. Rachel Bowers (shortstop), 2. Kyla Prickett (first base), 3. Janelle Allison (third base), 4. Lauren Herazo (left field), 5. Emily Scheidter (designated player), 6. Lindsay Kalup (right field), 7. Megan Fitzgerald (second base), 8. Becca Bachman (center field), 9. Laci Lautner (pitcher).

Amanda O’Toole was the starter at catcher. Also seeing action in the WPIAL finals were Bayli Moon at second base along with Tara Conley and Sydney Flinn as pinch hitters.

Academics

Dr. Amy Hosmer (2001)

Hosmer served as president of the National Honor Society, and was a TJ scholar-athlete and CalcuSolveBowl champion.

She is an assistant professor of medicine, University Hospitals Cleveland, and has had multiple publications in the field of gastroenterology.

Hosmer has received recognition in medical education and as a female leader in therapeutic endoscopy.

Ashley Kramer (2001)

A National Honor Society member, Kramer was lauded as a regional all-American in girls soccer after racking up 132 career goals. She also was honored as a scholar-athlete of the year at Old Dominion

Kramer has held engineering, product and marketing roles with NASA, Amazon and Tableau Software and currently is the chief marketing and strategy officer with GitLab.

Teachers/staff

John “Hoppy” Mitruski (1969)

Mitruski graduated with honors and taught physical education in the WJHSD for 35 years. He coached in 583 games over 33 years with the TJ softball team, earning 376 wins, then spent seven years as an assistant. He also was a TJ assistant football coach for three decades.

His belief had always been, “You can’t teach heart.”

Mitruski, who died suddenly at age 72 on May 29, 2023, insisted it was never about the wins for him.

Instead, he enjoyed getting to know the girls on his team, handing out nicknames and teaching life lessons through softball. He reminded his players that failure is a part of life.

Mitruski was a running back/defensive back in high school and continued his career at Bethany.

Tom Sharkey

Sharkey was a teacher and coach for 39 years, including 30 at TJ. Sharkey was the TJ boys head basketball coach for 25 years and guided the 1987-88 team to 22-6 record and a WPIAL runner-up finish.

Sharkey also was in charge of eight different organizations during his career.

Jeff Nelson, public relations coordinator for WJHSD, contributed to this story.

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