By CHRIS LARICK
For the Star Beacon
St. John High School athletic teams had been baffled for 12 years in their quest to win more than 10 games in a season before Davey’s Angels solved the mystery.
Behind the coaching of Dave Fowler and the play of Marianne Meola, Carla Bernardo, Stephanie Laffey, Donna Richards and Cheryl Zetwick, the Heralds’ girls basketball team registered a 12-5 record in 1981 and people paid attention.
“(Star Beacon sports editor) Darrell Lowe dubbed us that,” Meola, who will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame on April 7, said of the Davey’s Angels tag given to the Heralds in Meola’s senior year. “We brought the excitement back to St. John, the first team since 1969 to win more than 10 games, boys or girls.”
Meola, who will be the first St. John girls player inducted into the ACBF Hall of Fame, began her athletic career the same way many girls of that period did — playing ball with brothers. In Meola’s case, the siblings involved were Don, Tom and Ben.
“I grew up the baby of the family, with three older brothers,” Meola said from her home in Florida. “We were a very sports-minded family. My brothers all played sports for St. John. My brother Tom played for Youngstown State in college.”
That had been true even before Meola’s generation. Her uncle, Don (Ducky) DiPietro, played professional football at one time and is a member of the Ashtabula Touchdown Club Hall of Fame.
Ducky DiPietro was also the owner of the Spot Cafe, at the time a hub of activity in the harbor. Childless, DiPietro hired his nephews and niece to work there.
“Being the youngest of the family, in order to hang out with them, I had to adapt to their interests,” Meola said. “Growing up together, we spent a lot of time at my grandparents’. “
Basketball became Marianne’s main sport, followed by softball. Her first coach at St. John, Bill Schmidt, was better known as the baseball coach who led the Heralds to a state championship in 1983. Fowler took over for Schmidt when Meola was a sophomore. Two years later, “Davey’s Angels” were born.
Meola and Bernardo were the guards on that team and did most of the scoring. Zetwick and Richards did the rebounding and tough work under the boards.
“It took a team effort to get where we did,” Meola said.
The 1980-1981 St. John team started 6-0, raising eyebrows in the community, inured to watching them lose.
“The years prior to that, we were not as competitive,” Meola said. “That’s why it was so significant, us becoming so competitive in both the county and NEC (Northeastern Conference).”
That season started on a high note, with the Heralds impressing spectators by winning the annual Harbor Tipoff Tournament that started the season.
“Frank Roskovics, the coach at Harbor, was always down at the Spot,” Meola remembers of yet another ACBF Hall of Famer. “He was a graduate of St. John and there was always a rivalry between St. John and Harbor.”
Meola averaged about 14 points per game that year.
“As the point guard, I also had a lot of assists,” she said. “I was a good ballhandler and was left-handed, which helped (because opponents weren’t used to defending left-handers).”
The final game of the season was Meola’s coup de grace.
“I scored 30 (of St. John’s 48) points, and that was before the 3-pointer,” Meola said. “That game was neck-and-neck and went into overtime.”
Though the Heralds enjoyed a very good season her senior year, another squad was more dominant. That was the Ashtabula Panthers, for whom the Diana Davis show was getting top billing. Davis, who once scored 50 points in a tournament game at Champion, became a member of the ACBF Hall of Fame several years ago. She is the leading scorer in Ashtabula County basketball history with 1,934 points.
“We were undefeated until we ran into Ashtabula,” Meola said. “Back then, the city schools — Ashtabula, Harbor, St. John and Edgewood — were very competitive. The Harbor games really come to mind.”
Meola also played softball at St. John, but those teams were less successful.
“Carla (Bernardo) was the pitcher; she was All-NEC,” Meola, who played center field for the Heralds, said. “Carla and I played both basketball and softball together. We still see each other when I come up north.”
After graduating from St. John, Meola began her college studies at the Ashtabula Campus of Kent State University. She tried out for the basketball team, but her heart wasn’t in it.
She had received a couple of letters of interest from colleges, but didn’t follow up on them.
“I decided to work and go to school at that time,” she said. “In the ’80’s, that was not a priority of mine.”
She took her bachelor’s degree in business administration from Kent and later added a master’s in finance from Florida Gulf Coast University.
During her summers while in college, she had worked as a teller at Key Bank in Ashtabula.
“I got the job right out of high school,” she said. “I liked it. Between working and school, I was very busy. Kent State (Ashtabula) had a basketball program at that time and tried very hard to recruit me.”
After college, she started working full-time for Key Bank in Ashtabula. In 1995, Meola, who will turn 50 this year, was asked to transfer to a new Key Bank in Estero, Fla., between North Myers and Naples, as district service manager. She jumped at the chance. She has currently advanced to the position of district business administration vice-president, managing three offices and 12 employees.
In the past several years, Meola has become accomplished in a different sport.
“I’ve developed a love for playing golf now,” she said.
She has joined the Executive Women’s Golf Association and currently serves as treasurer.
“Golf was always a family thing,” she said. “I started golf with my grandfather when I graduated college. It was something he and I could do together and I enjoyed it.”
For the past two years, she has reigned as chapter champion. In 2011, she won her flight, Flight 1’s semifinals, shooting an 81. That earned her a trip to Palm Desert, Calif., where she finished seventh of 36 golfers.
“That was a great experience,” she said. “This year ,I didn’t make it past semifinals.”
Meola is very grateful to her parents, Donald and Palma.
“My parents were good with us,” she said. “They supported all of us through our sports through all those years. They were very encouraging to all of us. All four of us have college educations and three of us have master’s. They gave up a lot, but they were never forceful parents who put a lot of pressure on us.”
Meola never married, but prides herself on being a great aunt to her seven nephews and nieces, one of whom plays for Lakeside and another for Lake Catholic.
Larick, a retired Star Beacon sports writer, is a freelance writer from Geneva.