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Leader earns top karate honor

Black belts from Allegheny Shotokan Karate school in North Huntingdon gathered last month for a group photo while honoring longtime student and new black belt Dave Jones. They are, in front, from left, Dave Zezza, Perry Culver, Ray Walters, Bill Viola Sr., Bill Viola Jr., Ray Adams, Tim Meyer and Rocky Whatule; in the middle, Dave Crissman, Bill Holshue, George Yurechko, Joce Viola, Ali Viola, Jacque Viola, Addie Viola, Dominic Leader and Dave Jones; and in back, Mark Luctoch, Josh Dorazio, Arnold Mosa, Billy Leader, Connor Burns and Charlie Slie. Submitted

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Friday, Jan. 25, 2013, 3:44 p.m.

It took 18 years of work to go from Mighty Morphin to a mighty prestigious honor.

North Huntington Township's Billy Leader was named the “Player of the Year” at Sport Karate World Games, which was held Dec. 26-31 in Buffalo. The tournament is known as the “Super Grands” and is considered the Super Bowl of martial arts.

A Norwin graduate and junior at Penn State, Leader earned induction into the National Black Belt League Hall of Fame for the honor.

Not bad for a 21-year-old who first took up the sport when he was 3 — when his parents took him to Allegheny Shotokan Karate School in Irwin as they first were learning about their son.

“I don't remember everything,” Leader said by phone from State College recently, “but my mom would tell me that the reason I started was I wanted to be a Power Ranger.

“I was jumping off tables and kicking and stuff, so she thought, ‘Maybe we'll start him in karate or something.'” It quickly became a lifetime love.

“I started with (coach Sensei Bill Viola), and pretty much, (my mother) said I loved it right away,” Leader said. “I could never stop doing karate. If I was, say, waiting in line at school for food, I would be doing karate. I was always doing it and I never stopped practicing.”

All the way through the 23rd “Super Grands” late last month. Part of a field of more than 2,000 world-class competitors representing North America, South America, Asia and Europe who qualified through a series of regional and national events, Leader won the Men's Light Middleweight Continuous Sparring division.

En route to the final, Leader defeated Andres Garcia of Guatemala, the reigning six-time world champion. At the world games closing ceremonies Dec. 31, the NBL Executive Office voted Leader the NBL Diamond Award “Player of the Year.”

“Accepting that award, honestly, felt amazing,” Leader said. “Just knowing I'd been doing this since I was 3 years old, to work up to that and finally be able to win something like that, it meant more to me than winning any (other) title. Knowing I put all my effort into karate, there was a lot of pride.”

Leader served as captain of the Pittsburgh-based Team Kumite at the Super Grands, and he wasn't the only member of the team to win awards.

Leader's brother, Dominic, 19, also advanced to the finals. Ali Viola, Bill's sister, claimed her fourth continuous sparring world title. Viola had previously become the first female form Pittsburgh to win a world title (in 2006, '08, and '09). She won an adult title this year.

The Leader brothers and Ali Viola are roughly the same age and began training at the Allegheny Shotokan Karate School at approximately the same time as youngsters.

“We've been together pretty much since we've been babies,” Billy Leader said. “We've all been pushing each other and supporting each other. When they win, I feel like I'm happier for them than anything. And when I win, I know they're ecstatic for me. That's really nice.”

It was equally gratifying for Bill Viola, whose father opened the Allegheny Shotokan Karate School in 1969 as the first significant martial arts academy in the region. Having a “player of the year” at the world super grands in Billy Leader is quite the feather in the school's cap.

“He truly is the hardest-working student that I've had,” Bill Viola said. “I competed my whole life and won a bunch of championships, but, let me tell you, to see him excel, knowing how hard he works for it, that means more to me than any titles I won.”

Chris Adamski is a freelance writer.

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