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Shadyside Relays set to celebrate 50th running

Photo Provided THE 50TH running of the Shadyside Relays will take place Saturday at Fleming Field. Several long-time relays supporters, workers and coaches gathered at the track to view and reminisce over the original program and documents from the first relays in 1972. Seated left to right are three original members of the 1972 Relays planning committee activities: Donna Joseph, Bob Bittengle and Jim Bittengle. Standing are current Relays Meet Director Jenna Coyne and long time committee member Jerry Narcisi.

SHADYSIDE — Many, many things have changed significantly since April of 1972.

For instance, a gallon gas cost 55 cents, the average price of a new house was $27,500 and the average yearly income in the United States was $11,800.

Those figures have gone up considerably since then.

One thing, however, has remained constant.

The third Saturday in April remains the yearly spot of the Shadyside Relays, which will hold its 50th running this Saturday with nearly 20 boys and girls teams competing at Fleming Field.

“I am personally excited because a lot of things don’t have the type of longevity that the Shadyside Relays has had,” long-time relays official and former chairman Jerry Narcisi said. “It’s exciting to know we’ve reached this point.”

Technically, the 50th running was expected to take place in 2020, but the meet — and the entire track season — was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Shadyside Relays was originally founded by Tom Vichich, who came to Shadyside as a teacher in 1968, and Jack Berger, who was the Tigers head track coach at the time. Vichich had previously taught at Bellaire and wanted to create a meet that gave smaller schools a chance to compete similar to how the Bellaire Relays was aimed more for the larger schools.

After several years of planning and with the entire Shadyside Local Schools administration on board with the idea, the meet originally occurred in 1972.

“I was a timer at the first meet because Coach Vichich got me involved,” Narcisi said. “The meet is really inspirational to me because of the people who started it. Both Tom Vichich and Jack Berger were quality individuals.”

Before instituting the meet, the Shadyside Relays visionaries sought the input of several track and field coaches and officials, including the likes of Cal Giffin, the man for whom the OVAC Championship Meet is named; Joe Gill, Sam Mumley, Bill Thomas and Ed Davis.

With that background, a committee was formed to begin the preparations for the meet. Included were Lou Postage, John “Gizzle” Ciszewski, who was a high school student at the time, Steve Montgomery, Jim Bittengle, Butch Joseph, Frank Ciszewski, Chuck Vogt, Wilbur Coates, Jack Bonar, Bob Bittengle and Clyde Kiggans.

Donna Joseph, who will be running the computer systems this weekend, Ray Ponzo and Gene Timbrook were also involved.

“I think one of the things that’s allowed the Shadyside Relays to go on as long as it has and be as successful as it has is because of the manpower we’ve had,” Donna Joseph said. “You just don’t see the involvement, at any level, that we’ve had much anymore. Not only the people around the community, but we used to have officials come in from all over the state and do things for free just because it was a great event.”

Obviously, technology on and off the track has improved considerably since the inaugural event.

For instance, on the Thursday, prior to the meet, a “heats meeting” was held where all of the entries were sorted, heated and put in flights. Those were written on the chalkboards of several classrooms at Shadyside High School.

Gizzle Ciszewski was heavily involved in the heating portion of the meet.

“Those are some of my best memories, Ciszewski, who now resides in suburban Detroit, said. “I also remember the day of the meet, again no computers, you would take the top placers in the trials and move them to the semifinals and then to the finals, all by hand with pieces of paper and 20 mile per hour wind gusts. I loved every minute of it.”

The next morning, the school secretaries would begin typing out the entries for use on Saturday.

The first four Shadyside Relays were contested on a cinder track.

“Shadyside had a great cinder track and when we got the all-weather track, (the meet) was really in high demand,” Narcisi said. “As time has went on, more teams and schools have developed tracks, travel costs have become an issue and we’ve lost a few teams.”

The Shadyside Relays hit its high-mark for competing teams in the early 80s when 42 boys teams took part.

Originally, the Shadyside Relays was a meet only for males, but as more and more tracks were being built all over the state and female sports seeing a major growth, the relays committee added the girls relays. It was contested separately, starting in 1986.

However, that meet didn’t occur as scheduled. It was postponed due to 10 inches of snow falling the night prior.

In 1991, the Shadyside Relays officials made the decision to combine the boys and girls meets into the current format.

Currently, a Shadyside Relays committee — which is chaired by former Tiger track standout Jayson Johnson — oversees all of the logistics for the meet.

That has changed over time, too. Originally, the school was in charge of the meet, but in 1978 the Shadyside Boosters took over and ran the meet for two years when the original relays committee was formed. It stayed that way until 2007 when the boosters took over again. In 2012, the school district and Shadyside Relays committee joined forces, but now the meet is ran solely by the committee.

While many things have changed, surrounding the meet, a couple of constants have remained.

Quality competition on the track and in the field events has always been there and the support the community has given the meet.

“I always remember how the town embraced the meet,” Ciszewski said. “We had great community support, purchasing all of the trophies and awards, which were second to none. It was just a great group of men and women who volunteered to work the meet. They were all great examples that taught all of the young people how to give back.”

Both Joseph and Narcisi mentioned the Columbus Wehrle teams that came down in the 80s, including Joe Banks, who still owns the relays record in the 100 meter dash.

The 1997 meet featured then Linsly junior Eddie Drummond against LaBrae senior Bobby Cruise in the short sprints.

Two high jumpers — Toronto’s Otis Winston and Magnolia’s Mike Barrows — both cleared 7-feet during the meet.

“The athletes are what really stick out to me,” Joseph said.

“When I am at the meet, and look around, and see 800 athletes or so participating, it’s just so gratifying,” Narcisi said. “To be able to have that many student-athletes competing against each other in that facility is amazing.”

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