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Change in college plans for several Westmoreland athletes

August 12, 2018
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Mt. Pleasant relief pitcher Meadow Uncapher celebrates closing out Belle Vernon in the PIAA Class 4A quarterfinals at Greater Latrobe High School.

Gio Vonne Sanders misses football. The sights, the smells, the atmosphere. Even the jarring collisions -- and he has dealt with concussions before.

Sanders still thinks colleges missed the boat on him when he was coming out of Jeannette as an all-state quarterback and defensive back.

He tried wrestling at Pitt, and while he enjoyed the Division I experience and showed his talents in that sport, something was calling him back to the game he truly loves. So, he transferred to Lackawanna College in Scranton to rekindle his football career while passively calling his doubters into account.

“I want to show people I can play at a high level,” said Sanders, who will join forces with incoming freshman Robert Kennedy, another big-play product from Jeannette. Both will try to earn scholarships with larger programs. “I wasn’t just good in single-A football. Single-A doesn’t get the respect it deserves. I want to show what I can do.”

Sanders is not alone. A large number of athletes from Westmoreland County are changing places, for varying reasons, all looking for the right place, the right fit. Some even switched before they started their college careers at their original school of choice. Others gave one school a try before jumping to another.

Playing time, home sickness, impatience and personal situations prompted the moves as athletes pursue greener pastures.

Lexie Kolano departed Norwin two years ago thinking Cincinnati was the place she would play college soccer. But a somewhat bland freshman season and a peek into the future revealed it was time for a change.

She left for Akron, where she believes more offensive opportunities will present themselves. She said Cincinnati was more defensive-minded.

Kolano already likes what she sees.

“We had a week of captains’ practices and just started preseason this week,” she said. “So far, I’m really liking it and adjusting well. Starting to play with all the girls is really nice to get an idea of how they all play and how I will be able to fit in to the team.”

Norwin has been leading the county in change-of-address labels. Just-graduated soccer player Anthony Harding hadn’t even stepped on the field for a practice at Penn State when he flipped his decision and committed to Pitt.

“I have nothing against Penn State. I loved everyone there,” Harding said. “I felt like my decision was for myself and my future. ... It’s closer to home, so my family and friends will be with me every step of the way.”

More athletes on the move include Steve Petrick, who will be a redshirt freshman on the Robert Morris football team after leaving Temple. A Norwin grad, the tight end initially committed to James Madison. He also wanted to be closer to family and friends.

After a year at Le Moyne College (N.Y.), softball player Johnna Karas, another Norwin grad, decided to transfer to Saint Vincent to be closer to home.

Zach Kokoska, the former star baseball player at Latrobe, played his freshman season at Virginia Tech. After a coaching change, he chose to transfer to Kansas State. The outfielder followed assistant coach Ryan Connolly to his new destination. Connolly was named director of baseball operations.

Kokoska leaves for Kansas on Aug. 14.

“I’m confident in myself and know that I just have to keep doing what I have been doing to be successful,” Kokoska said.

Former Hempfield football lineman Tony Pilato chose to leave Pitt after three seasons to finish his college career at Slippery Rock. Pilato (6-foot-5, 320 pounds) played in just 12 games, mostly on special teams.

Former Derry all-state running back Tyler Balega, who helped turn the Trojans into WPIAL playoff darlings two years ago, left Seton Hill after one season to join IUP.

Balega played sparingly at Seton Hill and wants to prove he can play for a more successful program.

Seton Hill last season finished 0-11. IUP went 13-1 and made it to the NCAA Division II semifinals.

“I am very excited to start the season,” Balega said. “I had a great summer and can’t wait for camp.”

He said finding the right school isn’t always what it seems on the surface.

“It’s hard to get the whole experience until you are there awhile,” Balega said. “You have to find out where you feel right academically and athletically.”

More recently, Mt. Pleasant softball player Meadow Uncpaher switched from Seton Hill to St. Francis (Pa.) after a coach was fired at Seton Hill and replaced by a new coach who then left to take the St. Francis job. Uncapher will be a freshman.

While he still has another year of high school left, Lyndon Henderson, a basketball player at Monessen, fits the transfer label. He chose to play his senior season at Arbor Prep in Michigan. He plans to live with his brother, Elijah Minnie, a transfer in his own right. Minnie is a senior basketball player at Eastern Michigan.

Minnie left Monessen for Lincoln Park. He played at Robert Morris before joining Eastern Michigan, where he was the leading scorer last year.

Another talented high school player from the area also left the state.

Anthony Johnson, a rising senior who has seen a turbo-boost in college interest after just one season of high school football, left Jeannette for Cleveland Heights (Ohio). Family reasons, he said, prompted the move to the much larger, Class 6A school.

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