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Monthly Archives: December 2014

Former PAC Football Coach Tries Hand Abroad

By Rob Longo

Around western Pennsylvania, Jeff Hand is somewhat of a familiar name. The Ellwood City native was previously the head coach at Waynesburg University, and later moved on to coach at Westminster College.

But after Hand resigned as the coach at Westminster following the 2013 season, Hand looked for something different, so he decided to head across the pond to France for six months from January to July to coach.

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Photo courtesy of Westminster Athletics.

“It’s a unique scenario,” Hand said. “I was very fortunate to be a college football coach at 28 years old. After those 15 years, I decided to do something out of the box, do something unique and do something for myself. Getting the chance to travel a little bit has been rewarding. Football is such a unique scenario; you really get back to the grass roots of it. When I was in France, it was myself and an offensive coordinator and a few position coaches, but for the most part, you have to coach it all.”

In France, Hand’s team, Amiens Spartiates, made it to the national championship. But with the team playing two-straight weeks and having a week off allowed Hand to do the traveling he desired, making stops in Ireland, Spain and Italy among other places on the off weeks.

Hand compared American football overseas to that of soccer in the United States, where clubs have an age limit up until 19, where players are put in the senior league.

“In France, I had a guy on the team that was 35, had three kids, was married, had a full-time job and loved the game,” said Hand.

After the brief stint in France, Hand will take his coaching abilities to the sandy beaches of Brazil this month to be the head coach of the Rio Branco Cabritos, an 11-month long position.

When it comes to talent, Hand compares it to the Division III level. In recent years, many Division III programs have traveled to Europe to face teams in exhibition games to get a few extra reps in, as well as to gain a priceless experience.

“There are some really good standout players, and some other guys that are committed that want to get better at the sport, Hand said. “The athleticism is there, it really is. The biggest difference on athleticism is they all grew up playing soccer – anything with their hands is relatively new. We grow up catching and throwing; they’re still coming along. Athletically, they’re there. The fitness level is there and they’re committed to putting the time in, but not to the level of a committed NCAA athlete. The French national team and the German national team can compete and beat some Division III (programs).”

Between scarce resources and teaching the fundamentals, Hand said the biggest challenge is, of course, the language barrier.

“That’s the biggest downfall; I’m not multilingual,” said Hand. “I try to learn some words before I go. They know American football terms. They know what a guard pulling is. All the positions are the same name; it’s all Americanized. They know some things about the sport but it’s still challenging. I always prided on myself to get to know the players, and that kind of makes it challenging because you want to talk to them and create a relationship. At some practices in France, I was on my own, but some of the assistant coaches were good translators for me. There were some players that were pretty good with English.”

Unlike in Europe where Hand had a place to live, a stipend and his plane ticket paid for, he will also have a cell phone and meals provided for him in Brazil. With no family to be worried about, Hand said where his future endeavors after South America are unknown.

“To me, it’s a tradeoff,” Hand said. “I get to travel. The Brazilians want to talk long-term as long as things are good. In all honesty, I have to get there and see what is there. If it works out and I’m comfortable there, I might go back for an additional year. I can’t see myself living in another country for an extended period of time. I want another run at the college level, but I’m not pinning myself down on what the timeline of that is. There are definitely opportunities; it’s a matter of finding the right one.”

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Dawn Of A New Day For Grove City Football

By John D’Abruzzo

Grove City College’s football program has begun to think about its future.

Soon after receiving word that longtime head coach Chris Smith will retire following the upcoming 2015 season, the college quickly set up a game plan.

Former Grove City standout quarterback Andrew DiDonato has been named Smith’s successor. He will join the coaching staff in January and serve as the Smith’s offensive coordinator before taking over as head coach at the conclusion of next season.

“Since the day I graduated, I knew if I ever got the chance to return to Grove City College I would take it,” said DiDonato, who is a 2010 graduate of Grove City. “I feel very fortunate to return and work with a man I greatly respect.

“It will make for a nice transition to be able to learn from Coach Smith this upcoming year and then take over after next season.”

DiDonato

Andrew DiDonato will take over as head coach following 2015 season.

A native of Bridgeville, Pa., and 2006 graduate of South Fayette High School, DiDonato was a four-year starter at Grove City. He still holds all-time career passing records in yards (7,509), completions (750) and touchdowns (49).

DiDonato spent the past three years coaching at his high school alma mater. As Joe Rossi’s offensive coordinator, DiDonato helped guide the Lions to their second consecutive Pennsylvania state championship this past season. He also had a hand in developing quarterback Brett Brumbaugh into Pennsylvania’s all-time leading passer.

“I was blessed to work with and work around great people,” said DiDonato, who had coaching stints with the University of Buffalo and Peters Township High School before going to South Fayette. “Over the past two seasons I was fortunate enough to prepare for and coordinate in four championship games – two WPIAL finals and two state championship games.

“The experience of coaching in that type of environment will help me at the next level.”

Besides coaching football, DiDonato also will teach exercise science and physical education at Grove City.

“Having known Andrew DiDonato for many years as coach and colleague, he is an excellent choice to lead the next generation of Wolverine football and I’m delighted that he is joining our staff,” Smith said. “As I prepare to embark upon my final year as head coach, I’m excited about the prospects for the 2015 season and I am confident in Andrew’s experience and ability to lead our program for many years to come.”

Smith has guided the Grove City’s football program to 119 career wins during his 31 seasons. He helped the Wolverines capture Presidents’ Athletic Conference championships in 1997 and 1998.

“For more than three decades, coach Smith’s unwavering dedication to Wolverine football has been a blessing to Grove City College,” Grove City College President Paul J. McNulty said.  “Our program has been fortunate to have an excellent teacher and leader of young men in coach Smith.

“His mentorship helped to shape scholar athletes whose on-field success mirrored success in the classroom and later, in life.”

CoachSmith

Coach Chris Smith will leave a legacy of success at Grove City.

A former Grove City player, Smith played for the Wolverines from 1968-71 and led the team in interceptions all four years. He also holds the program record with 22 career interceptions.

Smith began his coaching career at Grove City as an assistant football coach and track coach in 1979. He took over as head football coach in 1984 and also served as the college’s athletic director from 1996 to 2003. Smith was named the Division III Coach of the Year by the Metropolitan New York Football Writers Association in 1997.

“Coach Smith and I had a wonderful player-coach relationship during my time at Grove City College,” DiDonato said. “I consider it my responsibility to make him, all alumni and the Grove City community proud of the way this program grows during my tenure.”

This past season was a tough year for Smith and the Wolverines. They finished 0-10 overall after an 0-8 run in the PAC.

“During my playing days at Grove City, I experienced first hand how competitive every school is in this conference,” DiDonato said. “The schools that have joined the conference since I graduated have made the competition even stronger.

“I expect every game this upcoming season to be a challenge.”

DiDonato also believes the Wolverines will need to put in a lot of offseason work in order to field a competitive team next fall.

“A major factor for the amount of success we will experience this season will be preparation,” DiDonato said. “Developing in the weight room this winter, competing on the practice field this spring and ensuring there is no let down in either area over the summer.

“We must maximize our opportunities from now until camp starts in August.”

Defying The Odds, Lauren Hill An Inspiration To The PAC

By John D’Abruzzo

There hasn’t been a bigger story this season in college basketball than the one surrounding Lauren Hill.

A 19-year-old freshman member of Mount Saint Joseph’s women’s basketball team, Hill was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer – Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG) – last year. Doctors discovered an inoperable brain tumor and gave her only months to live.

They didn’t expect her to make it past December.

Lauren Hill

Lauren Hill scores against Hiram on Nov. 2. (Photo courtesy of the NCAA)

Nevertheless, Hill decided she wanted to fulfill her dream of playing college basketball and was able to accomplish that goal on Nov. 2. Against fellow NCAA Division III member Hiram College, Hill took the court for the first time at Xavier University’s Cintas Center. She scored her first collegiate basket when she sank an uncontested layup in front of more than 10,000 fans.

“The look on her face was priceless,” Hiram coach Emily Hays told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “She had that big smile. I’m like, ‘That’s why we’re here.’”

A graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, Hays was the 2009 Presidents’ Athletic Conference Player of the Year and is in her first season as Hiram’s head coach.

“It’s more emotional now than it was even at the game,” Hays said. “It kind of hits you even more when you’re looking back at it.”

Hill went on to face Presidents’ Athletic Conference member Bethany College during her second game on Nov. 21 in the Baldwin Wallace University Invitational. She also scored a basket against the Bison.

“Obviously, we were all very excited to have the opportunity to be part of such an amazing story, even on this very small level,” Bethany head women’s coach Rebecca Upton said. “When we found out that Lauren would be making the trip, the girls were so excited about the prospect of meeting someone who has had such an inspirational impact on the sport of basketball.”

More players, coaches and fans from throughout the PAC have been captivated by Hill’s story.

“When Lauren was first brought to my attention by one of my players, I wanted to know more,” Waynesburg University head women’s basketball coach Sam Jones said. “Considering I work with young ladies like Lauren, her story hit home.

“It was almost impossible not to cry when she was interviewed on TV.”

Lauren Hill vs. Bethany

Lauren Hill scores against Bethany College on Nov. 21. (photo courtesy of the Cleveland Plain Dealer)

Waynesburg as well as women’s basketball programs from Bethany, Chatham University, Grove City College, Saint Vincent College, Thomas More College and Thiel College have all helped raise money and awareness in Hill’s honor.

Those PAC teams, as well as more than 300 college, high school and professional basketball teams all donated No. 22 jerseys – the same number Hill wears – to her charity, layup4lauren.org.

“When the story first broke national news, our team decided we wanted to support her,” Chatham head coach Sandra Rectenwald said. “Since we didn’t have a No. 22, we sent in a No. 22 soccer jersey. We also sent her 30 to 40 good luck cards from members of our basketball teams, soccer players, coaches and a few others from around the school who wanted to participate.”

All those jerseys donated were sent to Hill to be autographed and then put up on an online auction. The two-week long charity event raised $64,040. A second auction began Dec. 11 and will last until Dec. 21.

“It was important for our girls to participate and it was something they wanted to do,” said Jones, whose team sent Hill a set of Waynesburg home and away jerseys for the auction. “It’s such a great story. With Lauren’s perseverance, it just reminds you to enjoy life because it really is so special and fragile.”

On Dec. 3, every women’s basketball team across the PAC wore warm-up tee-shirts with a No. 22 and the hashtag, #Layup4Lauren, on the back to help raise money in honor of Hill.

“The conference wanted to show solidarity for Lauren so we bought the Layup4Lauren shirts and backed her 100 percent,” Rectenwald said. “Lauren’s situation is so severe and random. It could happen to any of us at any time. We were all moved by the story.

“My team wanted to encourage her because it really hit close to them. This was athletes supporting another athlete.”

Hill’s story has helped to raise more than $600,000 for cancer research and treatment.

“It says so much about her character,” Rectenwald said. “She is an inspiration to all of us not to complain so much, and to enjoy playing sports because we love it and because it can be taken away at any moment.”

In the past few weeks, Hill has moved back home near Cincinnati and began living under hospice care. She, however, suited up for Mount Saint Joseph’s first home game Dec. 13 against Franklin College.

“Our team is so inspired by Lauren’s journey,” Upton said. “It is amazing the courage she has displayed and the positive energy she exudes.

“I can’t imagine being in her shoes and am so happy that she has gotten to have so many of her dreams come true over the last few months. We wish her all the best and our thoughts and prayers will always be with her and her family.”

To donate to Hill’s charity or to find out more about her story, visit thecurestartsnow.org and layup4lauren.org.

Domonique Hayden Hoping To Win Gagliardi Trophy

By John D’Abruzzo

Following another stellar football season, Domonique Hayden began to earn his share of postseason accolades.

The Thomas More College senior, however, has a chance to collect one more.

hayden_wjA 5-foot-8, 212-pound star running back, Hayden was recently named one of 10 finalists for the prestigious Gagliardi Trophy. The annual award is presented to the nation’s top all-around NCAA Division III football player.

Nicknamed “D-Train,” Hayden was the engine in the Saints’ offense and pretty much streamrolled past opposing defenses this past season. He earned the Presidents’ Athletic Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year award for the third time in his career this season and ranked No. 1 at the Division III level with 25 rushing touchdowns. Hayden also averaged 158.4 yards a game and gathered a total 1,421 yards on 209 attempts.

“Domonique is an explosive runner and the most explosive I’ve ever seen,” Thomas More head coach Jim Hilvert said. “He continued to get faster and quicker. He also can catch a football very well.”

Hayden, who is from Lexington, Ky., rewrote the record books during his time in Crestview Hills. He finished his career as the program’s all-time leading rusher with 5,461 yards and averaged 6.6 yards per carry. Hayden scored a total of 89 touchdowns and gathered 6,293 all-purpose yards.

“Just with his overall career, from the first day he set foot on campus, Domonique had a huge impact on our football program and with our school,” Hilvert said. “He’s a great person and very humble. He’s broken just about every touchdown and rushing record here at Thomas More and none of those ever went to his head.”

Hayden also set career records in 100-yard rushing games (24) and points (534). He set the single-game record in rushing yards (336) and rushing touchdowns (5).

“I know it’s not all about me, but if my team’s going to put the ball in my hands I’m going to make the most of it,” Hayden told Cincinnati’s Fox 19 earlier this year. “But it’s not all about me. Without my teammates, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.

“The main thing while playing football is to play for my teammates and my brothers beside me.”

Off the field, Hayden majors in Communications and has maintained a 3.1 grade-point average. He also volunteers with Thomas More’s mentoring program, has been a member of the college’s leadership council and volunteers with the Northern Kentucky Special Olympics.

“He’s been such a great leader for us and he led by example,” Hilvert said. “He worked to get better every single year. What impressed me the most about Domonique was the fact that he never cared about stats. He just wanted to get better.

“He certainly left his mark at Thomas More and with the entire Presidents’ Athletic Conference. He’s probably one of the best running backs the conference has seen.”

The Gagliardi Trophy was first presented in 1993 and recognizes excellence in athletics, academics and community service. The award also is named after John Gagliardi, who was Saint John’s legendary Hall of Fame head coach who retired in 2012 with 489 career victories, the most in college football history.

The 22nd annual Gagliardi Trophy will be presented Dec. 17 in Salem, Va., at a banquet kicking off the Division III Championship weekend.  Online voting for the Gagliardi Trophy concludes today (Dec. 8) at noon CST. If you’d like to cast your vote for Domonique Hayden before the deadline, click here.