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New WPIAL hall of famer Yannessa cherishes the process

| Wednesday, April 16, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Former Aliquippa, Ambridge and Baldwin football coach Don Yannessa shares a laugh with members of Baldwin's 1989 volleyball team as the 2014 WPIAL Hall of Fame class was introduced in April at the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum.

Don Yannessa is a winner, there's no disputing that. But what's even more impressive than the numbers is the way he changed the culture everywhere he went.

And this year, Yannessa's 37-year career as a football coach will be recognized as he's a 2014 inductee into the WPIAL hall of fame.

The hall of hame banquet and induction ceremony will take place June 6 at the Greentree Doubletree Hotel.

“It's a great honor because of the fact in my case I grew up in the WPIAL,” Yannessa said. “I played junior high and high school football with Aliquippa.”

As a player, Yannessa was a member of the 1955 WPIAL championship team coached by the legendary Carl Aschman, and featured tight end Mike Ditka.

After his collegiate career at New Mexico State, Yannessa broke in to coaching at Aliquippa when a middle school opportunity arose in the mid-1960s. He was working for the Chrysler Company in Detroit at the time.

“It paid $150, and I was making $10,000 working for Chrysler, and I took it,” Yannessa said. “I wanted to coach.”

Football is in Yannessa's blood, and he quickly established a reputation for building successful football programs.

“Not everyone builds a program,” said Mike Zmijanac, Aliquippa's current head football coach. “He's a guy that built the program from the ground up. There was no program when he took over. That's his legacy to me.”

Zmijanac got his start in the profession under Yannessa as a defensive coordinator in the late-1970s, and the longtime friends went on to win four WPIAL titles in 17 years before leaving for Baldwin.

“We had fun,” Yannessa said. “We worked hard, but we had fun. We were very, very close; the whole staff.”

Before Yannessa, Baldwin hadn't had a winning record in eight years. In his first season, the Fighting Highlanders went 6-4.

“They were 3-27 when we got there and we went 6-4, and I thought they were going to build statues,” Zmijanac said.

That was only the beginning.

In 14 years at Baldwin, Yannessa, who also was athletic director, had only three losing seasons en route to owning every coaching record in the school's football history, including most wins (82), winning seasons (10) and playoff appearances (6).

Baldwin also won the only conference championship in program history in 1999.

“My Aliquippa career was special but Baldwin was a wonderful experience,” Yannessa said. “We did things that weren't done before and haven't been done since.”

It's an understatement to say Yannessa built Baldwin's program; he created it. He even changed the team's nickname from Highlanders to Fighting Highlanders.

Yannessa seemed to do it all during his career, coaching the Big 33 Pennsylvania team in 1999 and the U.S. Army All-American Bowl East team in 2002.

He even had his moment on the silver screen, playing, of course, a football coach in the 1983 film, “All the Right Moves,” featuring a young Tom Cruise.

“Outside of my little cameo role where I had three or four lines, everything was me putting together the football scenes,” Yannessa said. “We put Cruise in the hospital twice.”

Retiring in 2008 after six seasons at Ambridge, Yannessa's career record is 249-137-7. He ranks No. 10 in wins in WPIAL football history.

But what he cherishes most is the process.

“We were able to turn them all around,” Yannessa said. “We were able to impact them positively.

“It was a result of not just me, of course. I hired a lot of good guys, and I had players that played their heart out for us. It's no perfect science.”

Baldwin volleyball team honored

The 1989 WPIAL champion Baldwin girls' volleyball team also will be inducted into the WPIAL hall of fame.

After losing in the PIAA title game the previous two seasons, Baldwin won the state championship in 1989. The Lady Highlanders were 118-2 overall.

It was the first of three state titles for head coach Paul Hindes, who also is in the WPIAL hall of fame.

Baldwin outside hitter Sue Reiff and setter Julie Fernacz were first-team All-WPIAL selections.

Kelly Kovach and Mary Doerzbacher also were All-WPIAL selections. Other top players on the team included Heather Lucas, Cassie Bowen, Laurie Flynn and Robin Collet.

Justin Criado is a freelance writer.

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