Clint Helmick is on a mission. The Canonsburg resident and sports enthusiast seeks as many autographs as he can easily procure.
“As a fan in general, I just like to collect them,” he said.
Helmick gathered a bunch June 1 because the stars massed at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in Green Tree. Sixteen athletes and two teams were inducted into the WPIAL Hall of Fame.
With three inductees, Upper St. Clair High School led the list, which also included former Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch, NBA and Pitt standout Billy Knight as well as NFL linebacker Paul Posluszny. The former Panthers, Sean Lee, Sean Casey and Jim Render, all had the same reaction regarding their induction into the HOF, which has a permanent display inside the Kaiser Room of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, located in the Heinz History Center.
“Humbling,” they all said the recognition was, especially considering their peers on the dais, which also included Bruce Gradkowski, who played 11 years in the NFL, including three with the Steelers.
“I may be the luckiest guy in the room,” said Render, echoing the sentiments of Lou Gehrig.
Render certainly had the most wins. After nearly a century in the business, he ended his career with the most wins by a head coach in WPIAL history. He also ranks No. 25 on the nation’s all-time list.
Render compiled a 406-141-6 record while coaching football at Carrolton, Uniontown and USC. Under his leadership, USC advanced to the WPIAL playoffs 38 times won 23 conference titles, five WPIAL championships and two PIAA crowns. Render’s teams also participated in six additional WPIAL finals.
“I have been very blessed,” Render said in his acceptance speech and then proceeded to point out the reasons why as he acknowledged some of his former players in the ballroom that seated some 500 guests.
A nephew of Larry Bruno, who was admitted to the HOF as a Heritage Athlete, attended the banquet. He played quarterback for Render when he was at East Liverpool. Mark Gentile, who led Render’s 1989 state championship team, and Jerry Berteotti, the quarterback of the 1988 WPIAL winning team, were in attendance, too, as was Peter Coughlin, who gained 220 yards as USC upset Central Catholic in a WPIAL playoff game.
“That’s a snapshot of how lucky I have been,” Render said.
Render was fortunate to be in Casey’s orbit. He noted how the two were connected by Lanny Frattare. The former voice of the Pirates called Casey’s home run in the PNC Park opener in 2001 and announced Render’s 400th victory as a member of the MSA broadcast staff.
Casey, however, recalled a fonder memory. The former first baseman for the Cleveland Indians, Cincinnati Reds and Pirates remembered visiting his alma mater to check out Sean Lee. Instead, he was booted from the bleachers by Render.
“He thought I was a spy,” Casey said because he was watching practice from the top row of seats in the stadium.
“I think he was a little stressed out because they were playing Mt. Lebanon or some big game,” Casey said. “When he saw me, he sent some kid with a boot on because he was hurt, to tell me to get out of here. So I left, but told the kid to tell Render that Sean Casey said ‘hi’ and when I got home, he’s on the phone telling me to come back to practice.
“I really just went there to see if Sean Lee was going to be as good as he is and he was it turns out,” he added. “When you are at St. Clair, you really want to be a football player. But when you play freshman year and get pancaked by Baldwin like I did and you come out there and you don’t know what you are doing, that’s when you play baseball.”
And boy did Casey ever play baseball. Long before he belted the first hit, which is also the first home run at PNC Park, he helped the Panthers win their only WPIAL championship on the diamond in 1992. As a junior, he batted .516 with 31 RBI. He followed that season up with a .419 average, a school record 14 doubles and 33 RBI.
Casey went on to excel at the University of Richmond, where he led the NCAA with a .461 batting average. Drafted by the Cleveland Indians, he went on to play 12 seasons in the Major Leagues, including with the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox. Voted the “friendliest player in baseball” and nicknamed “The Mayor,” Casey batted over .300 six times and was selected to play in three MLB All-Star games in 1999, 2001 and 2004. He played in the 2006 World Series, batting .529 with two homers and five RBI for the Tigers.
While Casey ranked getting his first major league hit and acknowledgement from his father with the ‘Jim Casey fist’ as well as the home run at PNC Park as some of his “coolest moments” in baseball, he ranks his WPIAL championship as most memorable because of the relationships he carved out and maintained to this day with his manager Jerry Malarkey, who now coaches his sons, Andrew and Jack, as well as his teammates, including Tim McGarvey, who remains his best friend today.
“Getting my first hit is forever etched in my life and getting that home run at PNC because as I was rounding the bases I was a proud Pittsburgher. None of the guys on the Reds knew how much that meant to me.
“But,” Casey added, “that WPIAL team for me was one of the best and funniest years of my life and the friendships I had, I still have today. We still go back to that championship and winning the whole thing. When I go see my kids play basketball, it’s great to go back to that gym and see that banner with 1992 WPIAL champions. My kids don’t realize I played baseball there and I try to tell them that I was pretty cool. But at home, I’m not that cool.”
Anderson gets call
When George Anderson signed on as a member of the WPIAL’s soccer committee in 1967, the sport wasn’t that popular. In fact, there were only eight sanctioned teams in the entire district. At that time, the WPIAL champion was determined by season record and there were no playoffs.
“Soccer didn’t catch on because it didn’t have professional teams here until the Pittsburgh Spirit,” Anderson said, “and also it had to share the field with football and everybody knows that football has always been king in this area.”
Despite those obstacles, Anderson worked together with then WPIAL executive director Charles “Ace” Heberling to initiate a playoff system and entice more member schools to begin programs. They promoted soccer as a friendly addition to a school’s budget.
“Buy a pair of shorts. Buy a T-shirt. Put a number on it. Get some soccer balls and a net and you could play the sport relatively inexpensively,” Anderson said. “So we sold that to a lot of schools because the expense of soccer was relatively cheap.”
Under Anderson’s leadership as chairman of the soccer committee from 1975 through 2017, the sport expanded to 108 boys soccer teams and nearly that many girls programs.
“I was on the ground floor and watched it develop,” said Anderson, who coached soccer at Chartiers Valley High School where he also taught for 35 years. “It’s been a real pleasure to serve on the WPIAL soccer committee.”
Anderson remains proud of his accomplishments. In addition to instituting the sudden-death rules, he championed girls soccer and helped coordinate the changes from a spring activity to a fall game, complete with state championships.
“The nicest thing was that we got girls’ soccer in there and that was really important to me,” he said. “We also got the season changed. We were able to pry the state into playing in the fall their playoffs and combining them with the boys and it really made the sport and the championships great. We have some really good talent.
“And while I’m kind of embarrassed to be among all these great athletes, I am very, very proud to be inducted into the Hall because I feel our committee has accomplished much,” Anderson added.
A dose of courage
Before he was struck down with nonHodgkin Lymphoma in October, Ryan Michael Estatico accomplished much on the tennis courts as well as in the classroom at Chartiers Valley High School. He was the No. 1 singles player, a four-year letter winner, a team captain, an honors student with a 4.7 grade-point average and a volunteer for the St. Vincent DePaul Society.
While he continued a regimen of chemotherapy treatments three days a week, Estatico still competed and attended classes. He played doubles on the team during his battle with cancer.
Estatico will continue through 2020 with his treatments while pursuing a degree in engineering at the University of Pittsburgh.
Estatico along with Dom Giallonardo, a Mount Pleasant basketball and baseball player diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, received the Courage Award during the WPIAL Hall of Fame ceremonies.
Stephanie Madia Mobley, a standout runner at North Allegheny and Notre Dame, official Joe Hardiman, Olympic gold medalist John Woodruff as well as coaches Guy Montecalvo and Gary Tranquill were inducted into the WPIAL Hall of Fame along with the 1998 Rochester High School football team that went undefeated and won the district and state championships and the 1979 North Hills cross country team that won the WPIAL and PIAA titles.
Look for features on inductees Bruce Gradowski from Seton LaSalle and Sean Lee of Upper St. Clair in upcoming editions of The Almanac.