Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Merckle places second at World Team Trials

Fort Cherry’s Jessie Merckle turned in a strong performance Wednesday at the 2011 World Youth Track & Field Trials, held for athletes ages 16 & 17 in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Merckle, who will be a senior, placed second with a throw of 148-6, eclipsing her personal best of 147-7 in 2010.
Haley Crouser from Oregon won the event with a throw of 167-6.
Despite the strong finish, Merckle was not selected to represent Team USA at the World Championships in Lille, France. A total of 43 athletes (boys and girls) were selected from 34 events.
Merckle is a two-time WPIAL Class AA javelin champion, and she placed second at the PIAA championships in May.

(Photos courtesy of Fort Cherry track coach Ben Maxin. Thanks Ben.)

Fort Cherry hires boys basketball coach

Fort Cherry filled its vacant boys varsity basketball coaching position Monday night when the school board approved the hiring of D.J. Gambridge.

A standout during his playing days at Bethel Park, Gambridge played at Thiel College before returning to the area. He most recently served as an assistant coach for Danny Holzer at Upper St. Clair.

Gambridge replaced Brent Fleissner, who spent two years as the Rangers coach. Fleissner was also Fort Cherry's athletic director, but left both positions when told he had to give one up. Like many schools, Fort Cherry will have AD duties assumed by another administrator. In this case, it will be assistant principal Bob Motte.

The Gambridge hiring marks the second time in recent years that Fort Cherry hired an assistant of Holzer's as its head coach. Former Duquesne University player Brad Midgley coached Fort Cherry for two seasons (2007-09) before getting the same post at Franklin Regional.

Fort Cherry also hired Shawn Palmer as girls volleyball coach.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Coming attractions

Monday's edition of the Observer-Reporter will feature the 2011 Softball Player of the Year and the All-District Team. The following day we will run the Baseball POY and accompanying All-District Team.

It's not the easiest task compiling the teams as the area produces a lot of talent in both sports coupled with attempting to get stats from coaches who are usually on vacation this time of year.

After that, I'll be working on the Boys and Girls Athlete of the Year. The sports staff has voted and the choices made. Also, there will the Top 10 Teams of the school year, along with some highlights of top performers and moments.

Then, following the highly anticipated Trinity-Washington Alumni football game (words I never expected to type together), the focus will shift to the 2011-12 school year.

Part of that focus will be on re-energizing The Varsity Letters.

R. Keith Taylor, a regular contributor and a coach in the Budd Grebb Summer Basketball League, suggested the return of Camp Kovak. That's a go.

Until then, the blog will take a much-needed break in a search for additional ideas. Of course, when a news story hits, it will be posted.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Gateway football player killed in N.C., another shot

Terribly sad story involving football players from Gateway High School.

DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — High school football players from Pennsylvania likely exchanged words in a Durham parking lot with a stranger who then opened fire, killing one and injuring the other, police said Friday.
Gabriel James Gamez, 22, of San Antonio, is charged with murder and assault in the Thursday night shootings. Darrell Turner, 18, was killed, and his teammate, Thomas Woodson, 15, was treated for a gunshot wound to the leg and released from a hospital, Chief Jose Lopez said.
“I think this is just a chance encounter between the youth going back to their hotel and the suspect going back to his hotel,” Lopez told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “When they encountered each other, there was some sort of verbal exchange. ... The suspect drew a firearm and started firing at them.”
The players were students at Gateway High School in Monroeville, where Turner was a rising senior who played linebacker and Woodson, a rising junior, was a quarterback.
Darrell Turner, the victim’s father, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that his son was with several other Gateway football players visiting Duke University and the University of North Carolina. Detectives told him that his son and the other football players were leaving a restaurant when the suspect, apparently threatened by the group of athletes, opened fire, he said.
“It’s just senseless,” Turner said. “It didn’t have to happen.”
He said the group planned to continue to Florida State University after the stops in North Carolina.
“He had a big heart,” Turner said. “He loved his family and football was his passion.”
The players had eaten at Five Guys, while Gamez had been at Outback. They were returning to different hotels when they ran into each other in the parking lot, Lopez said. Police found Gamez, and the weapon they believe he used, after talking with his family members, Lopez said. Gamez was in town for a funeral.
Gamez is being held in the Durham County Jail without bond, and it’s not clear if he has an attorney.
Authorities said Gamez has a July 19 hearing in Bexar County, Texas, for a misdemeanor theft charge.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

2010-11 Boys Athlete of the Year finalists

Mike Hull may no longer be at Canon-McMillan and, contrary to recent rumors, the school will not be renamed Canon-MikeHull. Still, Hull carved quite a legacy during his high school days and, as a senior, he was selected as the Observer-Reporter's Boys Athlete of the Year.

This year's honoree will come from the following finalists:

Nate Bellhy, Fort Cherry
Bellhy became the first local basketball player to commit this year when he picked Seton Hill. A three-time first-team all-district player, Bellhy averaged 25.8 points and finished his career as FC’s all-time scoring leader with 1,518 points. In his first year of varsity football, Bellhy excelled at receiver and caught 50 passes.

Nick Bolias, Monessen
A defensive stopper in football and basketball, Bolias was an second-team all-state defensive back but made an equal impact as the leading receiver for the Greyhounds. Bolias started at point guard for Monessen, which won the WPIAL Class AA championship (convincingly) and reached the state semifinals. Bolias would always draw the opponent’s top offensive player, whether he was 5-10 or 6-6. Bolias also played soccer during the fall, and helped Monessen to a strong season.

Christian Brumbaugh, South Fayette
A William & Mary football signee, Brumbaugh established every WPIAL passing record imaginable during his senior season from career yards to single-season yards. He also established a PIAA record for single-season TD passes for South Fayette’s WPIAL championship team, which reached the state final. Brumbaugh started at center for a team that reached the WPIAL Class AAA finals and the PIAA semifinals.

Derrick Fiore, Ringgold
A Cal U football recruit, Fiore was selected to the O-R Elite 11 and he rushed for 1,200 yards and averaged 10 yards per carry for the first Ringgold team to go undefeated and untied in the regular season. Fiore was also an all-conference defensive back, where he was recruited by Cal. Fiore joined the basketball team as a senior and cracked the rotation for a team that made a 14-game improvement from the previous year. A sprinter in track, Fiore ran the anchor leg on Ringgold’s WPIAL championship 400 relay team.

Austin Hancock, Peters Township
Few area athletes possess the natural leadership skills of Hancock, a two-sport standout in football and baseball. The Fordham-bound football player quarterback Peters Township to the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs for the first time, and the Indians were the only team to hold a lead on PIAA champion North Allegheny in the postseason, albeit a 7-0 lead early in the game. Hancock was a dual threat in football, and some believe he may be a better baseball player. Batting in the middle of the Indians' order, Hancock delivered power numbers and was a four-year starter.

Josh Patterson, South Fayette
Patterson has the rare distinction of competing for WPIAL team championships in all three sports seasons as a senior. He was the third-leading receiver on the football team, and made several big plays during the postseason. In basketball, Patterson served as South Fayette’s defensive specialist and earned third-team all-district honors. Patterson also qualified for the PIAA championships in the triple jump. He will play basketball at Grove City, but has been asked to join the football and track teams as well.

Jeff Tarley, Beth-Center
Tarley will wrestler for West Virginia and returned to his three-sport ways as a senior. Tarley served as B-C’s tailback and nearly rushed for 1,000 yards despite missing several games. In wrestling, Tarley won his second WPIAL championship and placed second at the state tournament. In baseball, Tarley’s presence helped the Bulldogs to one of their better seasons.

2010-11 Girls Athlete of the Year Finalists

The reign of Taylor Schram, who started as a freshman on the Penn State girls soccer team, as the Observer-Reporter's Girls Athlete of the Year is about to conclude.

The sports staff will select the 2010-11 Girls AOY from the following four finalists.

Nicole Hilton, South Fayette
An Ohio State track recruit, Hilton was a former four-sport athlete who discovered, as a junior, that she can run. As a senior, Hilton won WPIAL Class AA cross country champion and placed sixth at state meet. In track, she was a WPIAL Class AA champion in 1,600 and 3,200 runs, and a PIAA champion in 3,200 run.

Jessie Merckle, Fort Cherry
A ballgirl for the Rangers football team, who may end up being the kicker in 2011, Merckle made a name for herself in basketball and track. A scrappy, tough point guard on the best girls basketball team in FC history, Merckle played for WPIAL championship and the team reached PIAA quarters. She was first-team all-district in hoops, averaged 11.1 points in addition to being a top-flight defensive guard. A WPIAL Class AA javelin champion for second consecutive season, Merckle placed second at the state meet.

Shelli Spamer, Peters Township
Like last year’s AOY Taylor Schram, Spamer is a highly accomplished soccer player. She received a full scholarship to play at NC State and has been part of the national player pool in her age group for several years. Spamer scored 28 goals despite being a playmaker for WPIAL and PIAA champions. She dominated the pace of the PIAA championship game.

Tanya Timko, Chartiers-Houston
Timko is believed to be the first tennis player in WPIAL history to qualify for PIAA tennis championships in all four categories – boys singles, boys doubles, girls singles and girls doubles. As a senior, IUP-bound Timko played boys singles. She finished third in WPIAL singles, losing in the semifinals to the eventual WPIAL and PIAA champion. Timko lost in first round of state tournament.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Avella hires Cecchini as football coach

Football will be played at Avella High School in 2011 as the school board approved the hiring of Ryan Cecchini Wednesday night as the Eagles' next coach.

Cecchini, 30, served as Avella's junior high coach in 2010, and was also the junior high wrestling coach. Cecchini is a 1999 graduate of Avella, where he played football and wrestled. He went on to play football at Hiram College.

Cecchini originally interviewed for the position in March and his name appeared on April's agenda, but the board opted to table the hiring for two months. That helped fuel rumors that the football program might disband in favor of soccer.

Cecchini replaced Frank Gray, who resigned in March after compiling a 3-24 record in three years. Gray's efforts in 2008 helped save football at Avella.

Run ruckus

Blogger's note: The following post deviates from high school athletics. Proceed with caution.

Over the nearly four years that The Varsity Letters (trust me, sometimes it's felt like 15 years) has been around, I've been called plenty of things. Most of it hasn't been very nice.

When asked by coaches, parents, etc. how I've put up with it, my general response is, "I'd rather anonymous computer bullies make fun of me than a teenager or a coach who puts in exhausting hours for minimal monetary compensation."

OK, maybe it's slightly more colorful.

Well, here's an offer to for any reader, athlete, former athlete, track coach, football coach or any coach to compete with or against me. I'm hoping a few people accept the challenge. Maybe it can offer new and exciting ways to mock your least favorite blogger.

In late July, I'll be in Michigan for an event called Warrior Dash, a run/obstacle course with some wicked twists. My entry fee has been paid, I'm locked in.

For several months, I've been running on the rolling hills of Western Pennsylvania in preparation. Then, on the radio, I heard advertisements for an event being held July 16 at Washington County Fairgrounds.

It's called Run Ruckus, and the course design for the local race looks every bit as devilish as Warrior Dash. Needless to say, I'm quite interested.

So, I thought this race might be a good opportunity to find a few others to join in the fun, maybe even be part of a first-person newspaper account. I'm not going to do this by myself, so I'm looking for a few good local people.

Are you already signed up? If so, let me know.

Sincerely interested? If so, let me know.

Want to make me look like a fool with your immense athleticism? If so, let me know.

Don't contact me via this site. Either email me at or leave me a message at 1-800-222-6397 ext. 2430.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

PPL West champs

Clairton defeated Montour, 18-7, in the finals of the Gateway 7-on-7.

Final stats needed

The Observer-Reporter needs final baseball and softball statistics for all area high school teams that do not post their information on

Stats – a few of the top players will do – can be sent to

Friday, June 10, 2011

Peters Township expects to hire former Steelers LB Gildon as DL coach

Steelers all-time sacks leader Jason Gildon is expected to be hired Monday night as Peters Township's defensive line coach.

Gildon finished his 10 years in Pittsburgh (1994-2003) with 77 sacks, and 80 for his career. He spent the 2004 season with Jacksonville.

For more on this story, read Saturday's Observer-Reporter.

Softball semifinals set

Chartiers-Houston is one win from reaching the PIAA Class A championship game for the second consecutive season. The undefeated Bucs (22-0) play undefeated Clarion (23-0) Monday at 3 p.m. at Slippery Rock University.

Clarion is the District 9 champion.

Chartiers-Houston is the WPIAL champion, a 2-1 winner over Fannett-Metal Thursday in the quarterfinals and winners of 26 consecutive games dating back to the beginning of last year's PIAA playoffs.

The winner plays either Wyalusing (19-3) or Minersville (23-2) for the state championship Friday, June 17 at 3 p.m. at Penn State.

Trinity, South Fayette to participate in Gateway Gators 7-on-7

Trinity and South Fayette are once again among the 21 teams invited to participate in Saturday's Gateway Gators 7-on-7 at Gateway High School. Admission is free for those wishing to attend, and the event kicks off with pool play at 8:15 a.m.

The championship game is scheduled for 3:15 p.m. Last year, Gateway beat Clairton, 12-7, in the final.

Apollo-Ridge, Baldwin, Clairton, Gateway, Greensburg Central Catholic, Elizabeth Forward, Friendly Academy (Md.), Hampton, Hempfield, Imani Christian Academy, Kiski Area, Montour, Mt. Hebron (Md.), Oliver, Pine-Richland, South Fayette, South Allegheny, Summit Academy, Trinity, Westinghouse and Wilkinsburg committed to play.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Sign of the times

Chartiers-Houston standout catcher Colby Miller was asked to sign autographs following the Bucs' 9-3 win over Fort Cherry for the WPIAL Class A softball championship last Thursday at California University's Lilly Field. Miller hit a solo home run in the bottom of the first inning, her second of the postseason.

Bianco drafted in third round

Peters Township rightfielder Justin Bianco was just selected as the third pick in the third round of the MLB Draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Bianco, a Pitt recruit, was selected as the WPIAL Class AAAA Player of the Year by district baseball coaches. Peters Township plays Seneca Valley in the PIAA quarterfinals Thursday.

Here's a YouTube video of Bianco:

More on this story in Wednesday's edition of the Observer-Reporter.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Wash High's Phillips lands first offer

At 6-2, 270, Washington High School's Joe Phillips has the size to play key positions along the offensive and defensive lines to go with the speed and agility to play other places like fullback, tight end and linebacker.

Phillips, who will be a senior, landed his first scholarship offer last week from Virginia Military Institute. The Keydets play at the Division I-AA level and their 2010 schedule included Virginia and Army.

According to Prexies head coach Mike Bosnic, Phillips is drawing interest from Youngstown State and Bowling Green.

* Trinity quarterback Brad Martin will play at Division III Allegheny College.

Martin put together a solid senior season for the Hillers, throwing for nearly 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns. The latter is a Hillers single-season record and he also owns the school record for longest completion at 99 yards.

Martin is the seventh senior from Trinity's 2010 football team headed to a college program.

* Trinity graduate Andrew Sweat (pictured), slated to start at linebacker for Ohio State, has been tabbed a First-Team All-Conference pick.

* A pair of seniors from Chartiers-Houston are headed to Division III Hiram College, where they will play football.

Scott Betts, the starting catcher on the Bucs' PIAA-playoff qualifying baseball team, was a two-year starter at center and played defensive end and linebacker. A three-year letterwinner, Betts was a first-team all-conference pick in 2010.

Evan Bender, an outfielder on the C-H baseball team, started at quarterback, receiver and linebacker during his varsity career.

Follow me on Twitter @TheMikeKovak

Local PIAA baseball/softball qualifiers

All games Monday

Class AAAA
Peters Township vs. Dubois at Berwind Park, St. Marys, 5 p.m.
Class AA
Waynesburg vs. Bedford at Shanksville Stoneycreek High School, 4:30 p.m.
Class A
Chartiers-Houston vs. Bishop Carroll at First Commonwealth Field, Homer City, 4 p.m.

Class A
Chartiers-Houston vs. Smethport at North Allegheny High School, 3 p.m.
Cochranton vs. Fort Cherry at Allegheny College, Meadville, 3 p.m.