A little more than 14 years ago, I hopped into the mini-van and headed north with the final destination the parking lot at the Centre Daily Times. I didn’t even have a Garmin to point the way.
After a restless night of sleep and a long day of interviews, it was in that same parking lot that sports editor Ron Bracken offered me the job of being his assistant editor.
About 7 1/2 years later, I watched Ron, flanked by his family, leave that lot in a limousine on his final day after nearly 40 years of service.
And now having spent nearly seven years as Ron’s successor, I’ll leave the same parking lot this Friday evening — though in a pick-up truck instead of a limo — for the final time as a CDT employee.
It’s certainly with mixed emotions that I write in this space for the final time. I’m headed south to Winchester, Va., to be closer to family and to take on a new challenge in a similar position.
Where do 14-plus years go?
Certainly, it seems like just yesterday I was pulling up in that maroon Honda Odyssey.
The car model was an appropriate name for the journey I’ve traveled in Centre County.
Saying, “Yes” to Ron gave me the opportunity to cover some incredible athletes, teams and coaches over those years.
If you’ll please indulge me, I’d like to recall a few before I’m out the door and starting the truck.
On my first day at the CDT, I noticed that no one had the Penn State women’s basketball beat. When I asked Ron about whose job it was, he said, “It’s yours.”
My first Lady Lion team to cover featured a freshman named Kelly Mazzante. This wasn’t going to be a bad gig.
Through the years, I would get to report on some incredible talent — Mazzante, Tanisha Wright, Jess Strom, Maggie Lucas, Alex Bentley, Nikki Greene — that would rewrite the school record book. I’d also get the opportunity to spend time with some others who weren’t necessarily the stars — Rashana Barnes, Meggan Quinn, Julia Trogele — but who were some of my favorite interviews ever.
All of the Lady Lions have been patient with my incessant string of questions and there’s no doubt they made my job easier.
So did coaches Rene Portland and Coquese Washington, both great to work with whether they agreed or hated what I wrote or not. They never complained about one word and almost always called me after road games — no matter the result — to help me write a better account for the next day's paper. I've tried to thank them after every call, but I can't thank them enough.
Sports information directors Cathy Bongiovi, Randy Press and Kris Petersen worked with me, around me and often in spite of me. I was blessed by their professionalism and the fact they were just good people. Some of my greatest treasures on the beat are the times we just sat around and shot the bull.
The beat took me to places like Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Knoxville, Baton Rouge and Palo Alto — places I’d never seen and likely never would traveled to in my lifetime. It also introduced me to Rick Hall, a former Portland assistant, who is my best friend.
Of course, I’ve been fortunate to be in the Beaver Stadium press box — now that I’m leaving they announce some upgrades — for some big games by some big-time players. NaVorro Bowman, Josh Hull, Deon Butler, Michael Haynes, A.Q. Shipley, Zack Mills, Michael Robinson — they were a writer’s dream to cover because they spoke freely.
And I while I was frazzled at the time trying to make deadline, I was field level for the end of Penn State’s 26-23 three-overtime triumph in the 2006 Orange Bowl. It turned out to be the last time Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden, two of the greatest coaches of all-time, would have teams meet on the gridiron.
There’s been many more cool things that I’ve had the chance to do.
I’ve twice spent the day with the Bainey family at Jennerstown Speedway. For a racing fan, it was an absolute thrill being around the pits. I saw some young prodigy named Joey Logano race that first night — yeah, the same guy who won the Daytona 500 a month ago. You’ll never find two nicer guys than Tim, Sr. and Tim, Jr., or their families.
As neat as so many of those things have been, my true joy has been covering your sons, daughters and grandchildren at Centre County’s high schools.
There have been football Fridays, basketball playoffs, swimming and track. I’ve covered PIAA basketball and track & field. This March, I had the opportunity to be at the Giant Center for three full days of PIAA wrestling. Never at any event have I seen more tears or heard more four-letter words uttered in despair, such is the emotion of athletes who give their all to the sport.
Of all of them, softball holds a special place for me. In my first season with the sport, I watched Penns Valley win a state title, Bellefonte play for a title and State College reach the state semifinals.
Since then, it was nearly a yearly pilgrimage to Shippensburg University as Bald Eagle Area, Philipsburg-Osceola and Bellefonte (missed that one because of had to take my daughter to a college presentation) added state crowns. And since 2011, it found a home at Penn State, where every year (thanks to a special friend) Ron and I were perched behind the plate covering all four title games.
While the states are fun, it’s the regular-season and district battles between our area teams that will stand out. I still marvel as I recall at the line of traffic heading into Hess Field for a title game between Philipsburg-Osceola and Bald Eagle Area. They were still piling in as the third inning started that day.
The softball coaches — Jim Gonder, Dave Breon, Curt Heverly, Don Lucas, Kris Vancas, John Wetzler, Gregg Kohlhepp, Jack McCurdy, Rick Hall and Mike Harper — put excellent teams on the field and made District 6 one of the most feared in the state. They have helped me out on many nights by returning a late call.
Their talented players are too many to list. I was lucky to see them at their best and to able to tell their stories. Hopefully, I told them well. Many of them are now having children of their own, who will someday play on those same fields.
Certainly one of my greatest honors in this business was being named to the Pennsylvania Softball Coaches Association's District 6 Hall of Fame. The pleasure of covering the games and the great players was all mine.
I can't go without thanking some of the people I've worked and jawed with inside and out of the building.
First, let's talk outside.
I can't tell you how much of a smile it brings to my face whenever I see Todd and Norm Brown at any event I'm covering. It's a wonder something hasn't slipped out on their radio broadcasts while we were having too much fun during the commercials.
Likewise, I enjoyed yacking in the Bellefonte press boxes over the years with Bob Wallace. Thank God he was excellent at keeping the microphone off.
I'll miss the Sunday morning conversations at church with Denny Mason and Mike Kilborn. I'll especially miss the phone calls at all hours from Brian Wood, maybe the most knowledgeable sports fan in Centre County. Stay away from the carrots Woody.
And there's sports talk of all manner with former CDT part-timer Gavin Hoban, who texts me out of the blue.
I thank all of the athletic directors who helped me and our staff out. Bald Eagle Area's Doug Dyke was especially helpful and a great guy.
Finally and foremost, I'd like to thank the people at the CDT. I've worked with too many great professionals in other departments to list. You know who you are and thanks for putting up with me.
I'd like to focus on the sports department.
First and foremost, I'd like to thank Ron Bracken, who hired me and taught me how important sports is to this community. Before I covered my first event, Ron took me to a Bald Eagle Area-State College wrestling match at a jammed-packed BEA gym. The match was decided on criteria and it gave me a glimpse of the passion in Centre County.
Ron became my mentor, an example of how to run a staff. He's a great writer and I will tell you that I'm proud that a copy of his book “Replays” is walking out of here with me today.
More than that, Ron is a friend and great sounding board. Rarely does a week go by where I don't call him for advice or to vent a few of the frustrations. He is the consummate professional and makes me proud to be in this business.
I've worked with some of the greatest sports guys here. I've sweated out deadlines and had more fun with past employees Adam Gearhart, Guy Cipriano, Travis Johnson, Todd Ceisner, Jeff Rice, Heather Dinich, Vinny Pezzimenti and Andy Elder along with current staffers Gordon Brunskill, Ryne Gery, Mike Burns and Nate Cobler.
We've had some fun amidst the daily stresses. Hopefully you learned some things from me, maybe as much as I did from you.
If I've forgotten anyone, I apologize. The mind isn't as sharp as it once was.
Lastly, I will not forget to thank you readers. Thank you reading and responding to my writing and the sports coverage in the CDT. I've worked at four other newspapers, but never had a more engaged audience than right here. I have appreciated your comments — both good and critical — because you helped make me a better editor.
I'm a lucky man to get paid to go to ballgames, especially the ones I've seen here.
We'll load up the truck and go, but Centre County will always hold a special place in our hearts.
Goodbye and God Bless.