The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

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June 2, 2014

Night of champions

Track-CC HOF opens doors to HOF for first time

HARPERSFIELD TOWNSHIP — The Spire Institute is the premier facility in our area. It has hosted many bigtime events already, but Sunday evening in the Track Building venue, it hosted the berth of the first Ashtabula County Runners Club Hall of Fame banquet.

The event was, indeed, a celebration of effort, successes, and life lessons for all who attended. There was one main idea, though, and that was to honor, with its inaugural evening in existence, those who have brought back championships in track and field back to Ashtabula County, and then to honor cross country stars of this season’s vintage who were awarded honors of recognition.

Ron Weaver gave opening greetings and turned the microphone over to trustee Ron Chutas, who lifted the event in  prayer and thanksgiving.

“I’ve been part of many Hall of Fame banquets,” master of ceremonies Warren Dillaway said. “Those who make up the board of trustees for this group felt it was about time to honor the great athletes in track and cross country from our county. We still have much work to do to grow, but we feel this is a solid beginning, to honor those who have returned state titles to our county.”

Scott Campbell, a 1981 St. John graduate, got things rolling with the shortest speech of the night.

“I just want to thank all of you who have come out tonight for this event, and for the Board of Trustees for giving track athletes this great recognition,” he said.

Campbell was the 2-mile state champion with a time of 9:33.

Geneva’s Nadine Cox, who also was honored with Hall of Fame induction into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation ceremony in April, also was unable to attend this event, just like that one. One constant sits well about it, though — her dedication to her practice, in her title of Dr. Nadine Cox of Gahanna, Ohio, matches her dedication to her efforts for the Geneva track and basketball teams, which garnered her state honors.

Represented by her coach, Linday Henry, Cox was represented as an athlete of great talent on teams without a great deal of depth.

“Nadine did it all for us, when we asked her, but she was a competitor just the same,” Henry said. “She is truly humbled to be in this first class of the Hall of Fame for this sport.”

Cox won 2 discus titles and was runner-up another time, while also putting the shot for a fifth-place finish and taking a third in the long jump.

Mark Debevc of Geneva, Class of 1967, followed and set up everybody by bringing a long list of notes out of his pocket right away. In taking a state title with an effort of 189-11 and becoming a national champion with that effort, as well as taking the Golden West Mansfield Relays title with a heave of 192-11, there is little doubt that it may be a record that stands for many moons to come, but his highlight occurred on the grounds of Wenner Field in Ashtabula.

“There’s a story out there about my first big varsity event being when I tossed the discus onto a front porch outside Wenner Field,” he said. When the laughter let up, he continued.

“I was going up against a guy named Jim Gillespie of Ashtabula,” the former Eagle said. “The rumor has it that the throw actually bounced off of the fence and then landed on somebody’s porch, but I don’t think that happened.”

He then gave a detailed description, similar to one heard millions of times by fishermen about the one that got away, extending his arms to show how the story kept getting better over time.

“Back then, there wasn’t a lot of weight lifting,” he said. “I had success by working hard on the family farm and being a student of my sports. I relied a lot on technique because I’m not the biggest guy around.”

He also had a good career on the gridiron for Ohio State, and shared how it came about.

“Woody (Hayes, former venereable OSU coach) talked with me, and I told him that the only way I’d go there was if he let me give track a try as well,” Debevc said. “He did, and it worked out well.”

Without fail, and most likely to last a few more years, was the title-winning effort in the long jump set in 1939 by Harbor’s Bob Garvey.

Represented by Bob Beacom, Garvey was not one to blow his own horn, something quite different from today’s athletes.

“Bob lost a leg in World War II,” he said, “ but he didn’t want it publicized much. He wanted to share his experiences, so he remained active with area sports as long as he could. Not many people know about it, but his record still has only been beaten by some fellow named Jesse Owens.”

A fitting tribute to a man who is in the same class of athlete as one who was a national hero for making Adolf Hitler look as bad as Owens did at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

The Kingsville High 800-yard relay team, with took state gold in 1959 with an effort of 1:34.1, was represented by 75 percent of it crew, with only Jerry Paulson unable to attend.

The team elected Gene Yoak as it’s spokesperson, and once again, he delivered the goods.

“We almost didn’t make it to state,” he related. “There was another really good team from a big city that was ahead of us ar regionals. There is a special way to pass the baton among runners, and when there top runner reached back as he took off, the baton wasn’t there, and we beat them.”

He was deeply honored to be there, as any athlete should when entering a Hall of Fame.

“I have here the original baton we used in the race when we won our state title,” he said. “One thing I can’t figure out, though, is how these other 2 guys, Allyn Thiel and John Konnert, also the batons we used in that race.”

Jonathan Lyons, now of Atlanta but a grad of Ashtabula, Class of 1982, won the 1600-meter title that year.

“It’s great to hear the stories of efforts by all of these inductees,” Lyons said. “When I was younger, it seemed like there were always problems in the programs around here, so I thought I could do better in the big city,” he said.

“I did, but it all came down to getting back to my roots here,” he added. “This is home. I most would like to acknowledge my coach and life mentor, Gus Powell, who would give up just about anything to help a kid out.”

Powell, former coach, athlete, and Ashtabula police officer for many years, passed away within the last year, and he is missed by Lyons, among many.

“He’d take me anywhere for meets, even places like Chicago,” Lyons added.

St. John grad Joseph Sassler, Class of 78, took a 440 title with a best time of 49.1 seconds.

“I got started running because, as the youngest of 4 boys, I got pretty beat up by my older brothers,” he joked. His efforts led him to a career at Marshall University, which prepared him for his life in Charleston, West Virginia.

“I’ve had a lot of support, starting with my brothers and then coach Jim Boyle,” he added.

Marshall is best known for the recovery from the tragic accident which basically eliminated its football program in november of 1970.

“That accident is what Marshall is known for,” he said, “but it has recovered well and that incident has helped foster a tradition in all of their sports programs of working harder and together for successes.”

Completing the first brother tandem inducted into this HOF, older brother Tom was unable to attend, but was represented by Coach Jim Boyle.

“It’s a great honor to be here on Tom’s behalf,” Boyle said of his 1976 state 440 title-winner with a time of 49.5.

“Tom had his own style,” he said. “I don’t think there ever was an athlete I coached who worked harder in both practices and meets.”

1987 Grand Valley grad Michael Shoaf did the same thing at Ohio State as Debevc, playing some solid football and including track into his regimen.

“I was lucky to have a lot of people helping me reach my goals,” he said. “Ron Chutas at GV did a great job of teaching technique to me in both track and football, which was and is my passion. He taught me the meaning of hard work, as did Jim and Tom Henson, and my parents really did a great job of checking me ego at the door so my efforts would not be wasted.”

Shoaf is a 2-time discus winner, in 1986 and 1987, while taking second in the shot put in 1987 as well.

Edgewood grad Duane Stewart took the 880 title in 1954 and the 440 title as well. Now deceased, his daughter, Tracy, was simple in her thanks.

“This is a great honor for my dad and for everybody here tonight,” she said. “Thanks for making this so special for so many. Dad was so proud of the records he set, he kept his awards and would share them with anybody.”

Honoring cross country efforts from this season was the next order of business, conducted by Dillaway with great assistance from guru of running, Don Gill.

Karen Barrientos of Lakeside, Hailey VanHoy of Geneva, and Jefferson’s Colleen O’Connor were candidates for the first $500 scholarships to be awared to female runners.

Barrientos took the honor.

For the boys, Jeremiah Allen of Geneva, Steve Houser of Jefferson, Andrew Hanchosky of Geneva, Chet Mienkiewicz of Pymatuning Valley, and William Taggart of Lakeside were candidates.

Houser won the scholarship.

“$500 scholarships don’t seem like much when you consider college expenses these days,” Gill said, “but we’re still a fledgling organization that just wants to help out as much as we can. As we grow, we hope to help out more.

With the first banquet concluded, several honorees shared their thoughts on their day and current conditions.

“The biggest difference from my day and now is the tracks,” Lyons said. “I ran on a cinder track everywhere. Sometimes, the spikes were huge just to be able to run safely on those cinders.”

Sassler was just happy to be included in such a special event.

“I’m just really thrilled to have this event possible,” he said. “It’s a great thing to do, and goes well with what I experienced at Marshall as well. The tradition transcends to all sports, and I hope this does in the future as well.”

Yoak and Konnert, teammates on a special team, agreed about conditions.

“Tracks have really improved since our day,” Yoak said. “Many times, the cinders were so soft you couldn’t keep traction. Tracks are a lot better now and the technology is something we didn’t even think of.”

Konnert agreed in another area with Yoak regarding loose cinders.

“Equipment is a lot better now,” he said, “and there are a lot less injuries now because of the special things the athletes now have to work with. One advantage I think we had is that you played in all of the sports back then, which made for better athletes overall.”

Kelly is a freelance writer from Jefferson.

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