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For players, 'it's time to move on'

| Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Hempfield Area Senior High School's football players maintain an unwavering loyalty to their former coach, but the contentious battle that ended with the hiring of Greg Meisner provided resolution, if not satisfaction.

"I'm glad that we have a coach, and I'm ready to play football," said junior linebacker Ben Begonia, moments after the school board voted 5-4 to hire Meisner as head football coach, athletic director and weight-training coordinator. "I love Coach Ruffner, but it's time to move on."

The school board was greeted by an overflow crowd at the meeting, including 30 football players who quietly listened and waited for a chance to speak.

And, despite board member Lillian M. Fisher's assertion that "I have a vision for this football team," some players weren't mollified.

"What happened during the past two months has been a disgrace," said sophomore quarterback Casey Teagarden, who started the final five games of the Spartans' 2-8 campaign in 2004. "All of these kids sitting here know for a fact that this team, under Bo Ruffner, would have gone to the playoffs next season.

"I'm completely embarrassed about how the board handled this. I know Bo Ruffner, and you have devastated his life," he said, drawing a smattering of applause from the crowd.

"I just get the feeling that (the board) did this for themselves, and not for the players on the football team," freshman Nick Farruggia said. "They turned it into a political thing, instead of looking out for the best interests of the football program."

Some spectators declined the invitation to comment on the proceedings. Others welcomed the opportunity.

Vicki Pilato, a Hempfield Township resident with three children attending school in the district, questioned the hiring of Meisner. Ruffner, who was terminated by the board, is in litigation over his dismissal.

"I'm glad that the kids are moving forward, but Ruffner could be reinstated. Then, what do you do?" Pilato said.

Denise Hlasnik, whose son, Dan, is a junior offensive lineman for the Spartans, marveled at what she witnessed during the 90-minute meeting.

"That was a zoo in there," she said. "I really believe that they don't care what the kids want. They hired this man, and I think the only reason they did so was that he was the last man standing. They had no one else to turn to."

Meisner's willingness to work and his integrity were never an issue. And Begonia, for one, said he will welcome him without trepidation.

"Let's give the guy a chance," he said. "I don't need football to get into a good college; I need football because I love to play football. We lost our battle to keep Coach Ruffner, but we've got a new coach that we need to show that we can play -- and win."

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