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2003: A year of change, triumphs and frustration

| Sunday, Jan. 4, 2004

Though 2004 is four days old, the 2003 college football season will actually end tonight when Oklahoma plays Louisiana State University in a Sugar Bowl game that determines the Bowl Championship Series champion.

However, tonight's winner may not have any bearing on the Associated Press‚ top-ranked NCAA I-A football team depending on how the other bowl games played out. Perhaps this is a fitting conclusion to a 2003 season that had its share of change, excitement and disappointment.

Here we reflect on just a few of many sports happenings from the past year.

Autumn is recognized as a season of change and certainly the same could be said about the 2003 WPIAL football season

All told, new head coaches guided 14 WPIAL football programs last fall. Nine of those teams with new coaches are from the general area.

Local scholastic football teams sporting new coaches included Bentworth (Ron Skiles), Brownsville (Andy Assad), Canon-McMillan (Guy Montecalvo), Carmichaels (Mike Bosnic, Jr.), Charleroi (Nick Milchovich), Connellsville (Andy Robertson), Elizabeth Forward (Tony Ruscitto), Fort Cherry (Tim Garry) and Washington (Bill Britton).

Monessen rolled to its second undefeated regular season in three years, but the top-ranked Greyhounds were upset in the WPIAL Class A quarterfinals by a surprising Springdale team that won the title. Beth Center reached the playoffs for the first time in nearly 10 years while Ringgold made the most of its two wins to reach the postseason after a wild season finale victory at Albert-Gallatin. Montecalvo fared the best out of the highly experienced new coaches.

The longtime Washington coach guided the Big Macs to a fine 8-1 regular season and lost a well-played opening playoff game to perennial power Penn Hills.

Change was also a common trait with the three local college teams. Washington and Jefferson College fired former Steelers great John Banaszak after a four-year mark of 38-9 and four straight NCAA Division III playoff appearances. Offensive coordinator Mike Sirianni took over and guided W & J to a 9-2 record.

An 18th President's Athletic Conference (PAC) title and 16th NCAA postseason appearance in 19 years for W&J was denied by Waynesburg College, who whipped W&J 27-17 en route to the Yellow Jackets‚ first-ever PAC football conference crown. While head coach Jeff Hand was guiding Waynesburg to its best football season since 1966, revered Yellow Jackets basketball head coach Rudy Marisa retired after 34 years.

He had a college cumulative record of 565-300. Marisa ranked 17th among active coaches in career victories at all three NCAA levels combined and seventh among all NCAA Division III head basketball coaches.

California University of Pennsylvania Vulcans football was not able to have a second consecutive winning season under second-year head coach John Luckhardt, but the Vulcans did defeat PSAC-West rivals Slippery Rock and Clarion in the same season for the first time since 1986.

At the big-time level, West Virginia's 8-4 regular season proved far more impressive than the University of Pittsburgh's identical mark. The Mountaineers overcame a 1-4 start and ended up tying for the Big East Conference title with highly ranked University of Miami (10-2). Both of those teams played in lucrative January bowl games while the Panthers failed to meet the expectations of many who believed they could advance to the elite level. Penn State's disastrous 3-9 season had its legion of supporters questioning if legendary head coach Joe Paterno's better coaching days have come and gone.

As disappointed as Penn State fans were, fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers were possibly even more frustrated in this autumn of football discontent. With hopes of contending for a Super Bowl, the 2003 Steelers bottomed out to a 6-10 record and missed the playoffs for the fourth time in six years.

Once known as "The City of Champions" in the 1970s, Pittsburgh's best professional sports team (not counting the Riverhounds soccer team, which played home games at a high school) was baseball's Pirates. Despite an 11th straight losing season, the Pirates' .463 winning percentage easily bested the Steelers and hockey's Penguins.

A baseball boost continued in nearby Washington, Pa., though as the Wild Things again regularly drew sellout crowds to Falconi League and made the Frontier League playoffs for the second straight year.

Carmichaels High School won the WPIAL Class A boys baseball title last spring.

In high school basketball, Class A did the area proud as the Monessen girls team reached the WPIAL championship game for the second time in three years. A double-overtime loss to eventual state champion Bishop Carroll in the PIAA quarterfinals denied the Lady Hounds a second state semifinal appearance.

California's boys team stopped Monessen's boys team from winning a third straight WPIAL Class A title with a stunning opening-round upset and advanced to the WPIAL semifinals and PIAA quarterfinals, losing to Union High School in both postseason tourneys.

The start of the 2003-2004 high school boys season received a much-needed boost when the Mon Valley Shootout, despite losing sponsorships, was retained and now alternates sites at the four competing schools -- Belle Vernon Area, Charleroi, Monessen, and now two-time defending champion Ringgold.

Cal U's women's and men's basketball season appears to be a continuance of the championship ways both teams ended 2002-2003. The Vulcan women began the 2003 calendar year by compiling a school-best 33-2 overall record with consecutive PSAC-West and PSAC championships before advancing all the way to the NCAA Division II Final Four.

More impressive was the team's 3.56 cumulative grade-point average that ranked sixth nationally. Cal's men's team won an 11th PSAC-West title in the last 17 years and 12th season of 20 or more wins in 16 years.

SO MUCH MORE

In more highlights, Charleroi's John Maraldo reached the heavyweight semifinals of the PIAA Class AA wrestling championships and finished sixth overall. Belle Vernon Area sophomore softball pitcher Corey Baron won 10 of 15 games and batted .351 for the section 7-AA champions.

Fellow Belle Vernon resident Lou Rood took over the head coaching duties of the Pittsburgh Passion of the National Women's Football Association. Monessen great Charel Allen announced she will attend the University of Notre Dame after her senior season concludes in several months. Former Ringgold All-State kicker Todd James played a key role as a punter for West Virginia University's up-and-coming football team.

The football-playing Yuss brothers of Charleroi were the first-ever sibling duo inducted into the Mid-Mon Valley All-Sports Hall of Fame. Jeff and Jared Dumm, two other brothers of Charleroi, played significant football roles at Waynesburg College and Cal U, respectively.

Former Charleroi girl's soccer stars Shellie Cotton and Krystal Savarino took their scoring and goalkeeping talents to West Virginia Wesleyan. Former Ringgold soccer great Jen Pergola won the PAC scoring title as a sophomore at W&J. Cal U softball won a 14th straight PSAC-West title and made a 13th straight NCAA postseason appearance. Monessen's A.J. Jackson made an immediate basketball impact at Eastern Tennessee while former teammate Brandon Jackson did likewise as a freshman wide receiver with the Cal U football team.

Monessen's Latitia Williams excelled as women's basketball player at Division I West Virginia University. Belle Vernon's Scott McClintock (Michigan) and Charleroi's Dan LaCarte (Pittsburgh), along with Ringgold's James, succeeded at college football's highest level.

Ringgold's Beverly Rogers and Stephanie Kuhn finished first and second, respectively, at the WPIAL Class AAA girl's javelin championships and then third and fourth at the state meet. Belle Vernon's Steve Russell exemplified, and enhanced athletic excellence through hard work in his writing and communicating rather than on a playing field.

The sports stories go on and on, with numerous new ones waiting to unfold in 2004.

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