By Duane Cochran
Times West Virginian
It’s always nice to be remembered.
Friday evening Fairmont State University remembered some of its finest student-athletes when it inducted seven former standouts into the FSU Athletic Association’s Athletic Hall of Fame during a banquet and ceremony at the school’s Falcon Center.
The 2012 class includes: John Feronti (swimming), Jarrod Furgason (football), Martha Ganoe (volleyball), Kristen Gattuso (women’s basketball), Haywood Highsmith (men’s basketball), George Opron (baseball) and Bill Stewart (football).
The first inductee was Ganoe, a standout volleyball player for the Falcons from 1986-90. The two-time, first-team All-West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference selection helped lead FSU to a pair of WVIAC Tournament championships and was named MVP of the 1990 league tournament. Fairmont also won the regular-season WVIAC title in 1990. posting its only undefeated conference record (18-0) in school history. The Falcons also set a single-season school record that year with 42 wins.
Ganoe established a school record with 1,806 digs for her career that stood for more than 20 years. Ganoe missed the 1987 season with an injury and ironically says it was that year which had a major impact on her career and future.
“My sophomore year was probably the most impacting year of my life here in school,” said Ganoe. “I was injured that year and was not able to play volleyball, and I spent a year on the bench with coach (Larry Hill). I learned so much about volleyball that year from coach, and we formed a relationship that probably most coaches and athletes don’t ever have the opportunity to form. He’s very special to me. He was my role model, and he and his wife Joyce were my parents away from home.
“After that year I decided I wanted to coach. He got me my first coaching job at East Fairmont High School during my senior year, and after I graduated I spent four years coaching here at Fairmont with him. I’m now in my 22nd year of coaching and my sixth at Potomac State. That year I also decided I wanted to teach and work with special-needs children, and I love it. In addition, if I hadn’t been hurt that year I would’ve never had the opportunity to be a part of the magical 1990 season we enjoyed, and I got the opportunity to play two seasons with my younger sister Mary. I’m very honored and blessed now to be standing here tonight receiving this award.”
The evening’s second inductee was All-America swimmer John Feronti, who starred for the Falcons and Hall of Fame coach Steve Mahaney from 1974-78. He earned All-America honors in both the 1,650 free and as a member of the school’s 800 free relay team.
Feronti set school records in the 200, 500 and 800 freestyle events and helped lead Fairmont State to three WVIAC championships. He also served as team captain for a squad that finished in the top 10 in the country at the national meet in three of his four seasons.
“My accomplishments here can really only be gotten as a result of the team I swam for here,” said Feronti. “I was fortunate to have a bunch of teammates who were determined to be successful during my four years here in college. They were very instrumental in my success.
“I also owe a great deal of thanks to coach Steve Mahaney. I owe most of my success to him and his efforts as the leader of our teams.”
Standout quarterback Jarrod Furgason was the third inductee. The former Fairmont Senior High School star from Rivesville re-wrote the Falcon record books for passing from 1993-97. The two-time, first-team All-WVIAC selection still holds the career FSU records for passing yards (9,856), touchdown passes (101), completions (798) and total offense (9,638). At the time his 101 touchdown passes established a WVIAC record and ranked second all-time in NCAA Division II history. His seven touchdown passes in a 1995 victory over Concord remains a school record. Furgason, who owns four of the top nine seasons for passing yards at Fairmont State, led the Falcons to the WVIAC title in 1996.
“Without Fairmont State University. I probably wouldn’t be here tonight,” said Furguson, whose wife Courtney (Fochtman) Furgason was a former standout volleyball player for the Falcons and is also in the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame. “It’s where my mother and father met. I was destined to be a Falcon.
“My father played for coach (Joe) Retton. I learned how to play sports the Fairmont State way – the coach Retton way. My father’s best friend and coaching peer is Sonny Bartic, who played football here for Deacon Duvall. I learned how to play football how Deacon wanted you to play football. If I had a dollar for every time I heard that’s how Deacon would do it or that’s how Joe Joe would do it I’d be a rich man right now.
“I’m very honored to be a member of a hall of fame with coach Retton, coach Duvall, Roy Michael, Dave Cooper, Tim Underwood and countless others.
“I was fortunate to play here with some great linemen and great receivers. I owe much of my success to them and guys like Geno Guerrieri and Henry Newby, who were veterans in the program when I got here and took me under their wings and helped me learn to play at the college level and to Mike Kellar, who was my quarterback coach and offensive coordinator and really helped me to develop as a player.”
Kristen Gattuso, the all-time leading scorer in Fairmont State University women’s basketball history, was the fourth inductee Friday evening. Gattuso starred for the Falcons from 2001-05 and authored one of the finest women’s basketball careers in FSU history. She finished her stellar career with 2,041 points. She also holds career records for made field goals (738) and made three-pointers (258). As a senior, Gattuso set school records for points (727) and scoring average (22.7) while helping the Falcons to a 28-4 record and their first-ever NCAA Division II Tournament appearance.
The two-time, first-team all-conference selection was named the WVIAC Player of the Year in 2004-05 while also earning second-team All-America honors from Daktronics and honorable mention recognition by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA). She was also a first-team All-East Region selection as a senior and was named one of the WVIAC’s “Top 25 at 25” in 2007, honoring 25 of the league’s all-time great players and coaches in celebration of the 25th anniversary of women’s athletics in the conference.
“This is such a surreal moment for me to be standing here tonight and receiving this honor,” said an emotional Gattuso. “It’s hard to put into words what it means to me. During my career here at Fairmont State I made so many wonderful memories with my teammates, coaches and members of the community.
“I had the privilege of playing basketball here on the most successful team in school history. We were friends on and off the court and always supported each other. We all had the same goal, and that was to win. I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what I did without my teammates.
“As much as I owe them, I also owe so much of my success to coach Steve McDonald, who is as hard working of a coach as you can find. He recruited me in his second year here and told me before I left here we’d be nationally ranked and go to an NCAA Tournament. I figured he was just telling me that to get me to come here, but he was a man of his word. He truly practices what he preaches, and as hard as you think you are working as a player, he’s working equally hard as a coach. We were always very well prepared as a team.
“I think everyone in the world is blessed with some sort of special talent and ability. I knew mine was basketball. I started off playing the sport as something fun to do with my friends and watched it grow into my passion and lead me into my future. Basketball was my ticket to a college education, but I never imagined the countless opportunities it would bring into my life. I learned a lot about myself and the kind of person I am through athletics, and I’ll forever be grateful for that.”
The fifth inductee, Haywood Highsmith, was a premiere post presence for the Falcons from 1985-89. Highsmith is Fairmont’s all-time leader in blocked shots with 439 (more than 200 more than second place on the list), and led the nation in blocked shots with 145 during his sophomore season. Highsmith scored 1,639 career points and grabbed 1,045 career rebounds during his four years on the court. He was a second-team All-WVIAC as a senior and was a two-time All-WVIAC honorable mention selection. He currently ranks ninth in school history for career field goal percentage (.551) and 10th in made field goals (707).
“First, I’d like to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for blessing me in this life,” said Highsmith. “I’d also like to thank Fairmont State for giving me the opportunity to come here, be a student athlete, get an education and earn a degree. I played with some special players here – Alfonso Davis, Brian Tristani, Rodney Rhoda, Terrence Coleman and myself were the starting five. and we accomplished some special things. I owe a lot to those guys.
“I’d also like to pay tribute to my high school coach Fred Yanero and my college coaches Randy Hess and Joe Lambiotte. I also want to thank the fans here in Fairmont for all of their love and support over the years. That really meant a lot to me.”
The sixth inductee, George Opron, was a standout for the Falcons on the diamond during a college career that was split due to military service. Opron helped Fairmont State’s baseball team to three league titles and a runner-up finish in his four seasons (1953-54, 57-58). He was a two-time team captain and served as captain of the All-WVIAC team in 1958. In 1957, he guided the Falcons to the national playoffs and was 10th in the country in batting with a .479 average. He was also tied for the national lead in doubles that year with seven. He led Fairmont State in batting in three of his four seasons.
“It was 60 years ago that I enrolled here, and needless to say a lot has happened since then,” said Opron, who was originally from Grant Town. “It’s good to have this chance to remember the events of my past and tell others of the impact that they had on my life.
“I grew up in a family of five as the son of a coal miner. After graduating from high school, I had a big decision to make. I could’ve worked in the coal mines, joined the military or went to college. I chose Fairmont State – luckily. I had coaches who made sure I had scholarship opportunities to complete my education. Going to Fairmont State was the best choice I could’ve made and the highlight of my college career was being on the baseball team here.
“It’s really great for me to come back to my roots. There’s a lot of changes all around here, but it’s still home to me.”
The late Bill Stewart, who played football at Fairmont State from 1972-74, was the evening’s final inductee. He was a three-year lettermen for the Falcons before having a distinguished coaching career.
As a player at FSU, Stewart was an offensive lineman and team captain for coaches Deacon Duvall and Bill Kerr, helping the Falcons to the league title in 1974. He got his coaching start as a student assistant at Fairmont State in 1975. Stewart’s coaching stops included Salem (1977-79), North Carolina (1979, 1985-87), Marshall (1980), William & Mary (1981-83), Navy (1984), Arizona State (1988-89) and Air Force (1990-93). He got his first head coaching opportunity at VMI and spent three seasons (1994-97) with the Keydets. Stewart then spent three more seasons (1998-2000) in the Canadian Football League before becoming a member of Don Nehlen’s staff at West Virginia University in 2000. He remained at WVU under Rich Rodriguez, and led Mountaineers to a stunning 48-28 victory over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl in 2008 before officially being named the head coach. He spent three seasons as head coach of the Mountaineers (2008-10) and compiled a 28-12 record. He died of a heart attack in the spring of 2012.
A video of Stewart’s pregame talk to the Mountaineers before their Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma in January of 2008 was played for the audience Friday night. His award was accepted by his older brother Ted.
“I can never take my brother’s place, but I am truly humbled to be here,” said Ted Stewart, who also played football for FSU with his younger brother. “Karen, Bill’s wife, and their son Blaine couldn’t be here tonight because Blaine and his Morgantown High teammates are hard at work getting another win over John Marshall. They will attend the Fairmont State football game here tomorrow and are very happy to be a part of this celebration.
“I wish Billy could have seen the love and support we have here tonight. He’d have been very happy. My brother and I had and have fond memories of our time here at Fairmont State. What a wonderful impact this school had on shaping our lives. We were blessed with positive role models here outside of our loving mother and father. Can you imagine being able to say you played for coach Deacon Duvall and other great coaches like Gary McCutcheon and Bill Kerr? FSU was clearly good for Billy. He was a very well-rounded person.
“In my 62 years I’ve never seen anyone who cared for others more, sacrificed more or helped others more than my brother Billy. He lived his life trying to make things better for those who needed his help. What a humble servant he was who I believe is being rewarded here tonight as we speak. My brother was a good and honest man, and we are fortune that the values with which he lived shown upon all of those who knew him.”
The Class of 2012 Hall of Fame inductees will be introduced Saturday prior to Fairmont State’s 2 p.m. homecoming football game with Seton Hill University at Duvall-Rosier Field.