Life’s ups and downs, its challenges but also its lighthearted moments were front and center as a new group of successful Amity alumni were inducted into the Amity Athletic Hall of Fame and the Hall of Honor with a dinner at Grassy Hill Country Club last week.
Among the athletes honored were track and field champion Allison Barwise (Class of 2009), Football and wrestling MVP Gilbert Jennings (1991); swimmer Erin (McLaughlin) Guise (2005), volleyball player Janice Ehorn (2008), the late baseball and hockey enthusiast Joseph Ciancola III (2010); and last, but not least, varsity baseball coach Sal Coppola (1987).
Inducted into the Hall of Honor were journalist Scott Klein (1988), entrepreneur Rob Leonard (1987), Chrysler engineer and Cystic Fibrosis ambassador Mark Levine (1988); and investment manager Michael Slomsky (1991).
Coach Coppola, whose baseball Spartans are currently ranked Number 1 in the state, was greeted with a standing ovation from the audience, which included a number of his players as well as fellow coaches, administrators, board members and family.
An Amity graduate in his own right (1987), Coppola joins his father, Sal Senior, and uncle Robert, in the ranks of Amity Hall of Fame inductees. It’s the pressure that this family legacy put on him that made him who he is today, he said. “I used to be very secretive about my coaching philosophy,” he said. “Until I realized that nobody (of the other coaches) grew up in the Coppola family.”
Growing up, he would play whiffle ball, basketball or football every day after school, he said. “It was vicious, but it taught me to compete and be friends afterward.” It’s this competitive spirit that he wants to instill in his players. Over the 28 years that he has coached at Amity, he must have coached about 1,000 players, he reminisced. “What incredible relationships I had with some of these players,” he said. “Who is luckier than me, at 52 years old, to be playing the game I love.”
Coppola also shared a heart-felt story about one of his star players, and fellow Hall of Fame inductees, Joseph Ciancola, who passed away unexpectedly at age 20 in the fall of 2011, playing baseball for the University of Rhode Island.
After the game, Coach Coppola takes his winning teams on a run, called the Warrior Run, which can be as long or as short as they wish. “Back then, I would be leading the pack,” he said with self-deprecating humor. Well, Joey was running right behind him and suggested to run through the pond at the entrance to the high school campus.
“It’s 45 degrees, it’s raining, and Joey wants to run through the pond,” he said. So off they went. “I’m first and I sink so deep into the mud that I can barely move.” When he turned around, he saw that Joey had stopped short at the edge of the pond, literally leaving him stuck in the mud. “That was Joey,” he remembered fondly.
The plaque for Amity Hall of Fame inductee Joseph Ciancola was presented to his sister Lindsay, who had her own stories to tell about her brother. She talked about his passion for both hockey and baseball, a passion that flourished at Amity. “There was pure joy when he was playing,” she recalled.
But his passion could also trip him up, for instance when a picture of him and the boys playing pond hockey was published in the local paper, playing hockey at 11 a.m. on a week day. “What a way to get caught,” she added.
Allison Barwise, who was named Amity Athlete of the Year in 2009, excelled in soccer, but in particular in track and field, making it to New England Champion in high jump in 2009. In her acceptance speech she also talked about her performance anxiety, which at times got in the way. She thanked coaches Mahon and Amato for their understanding and “not coming down hard on me, because I was coming down hard on myself.”
She said she learned over time that failure is a natural part of growth, and thanked her parents and coaches for their support. “I needed you to believe in me,” she said.
Like a number of other inductees that night, Rob Leonard (1987) admitted that his path to success was not a straight line. “My school records must have been lost,” when they nominated him for the Hall of Honor, he joked. With a degree in communication from Southern, his dream job was to become a writer for the Late Show with David Letterman.
But instead, a friend got him a job putting empty beer bottles on a conveyor belt, and that was the beginning of quite the career. Nowadays, he is the owner of the widely successful New England Brewing Co. currently located on Amity Road in Woodbridge.
It was the Farm-to-Table movement that turned the attention of the community to local businesses, and helped propel the company to phenomenal growth. “It’s the community that turned the tide,” Leonard said.
Another one to stress the importance of community was Mark Levine (1988), an engineer with Chrysler, who lives in Indiana, home to the Indy 500 race track. But his speech was not about cars, or speed – nor about his time as Amity tennis captain. Instead, Levine talked about his younger brother, David, who, just like Mark himself, was diagnosed early in life with cystic fibrosis, a disease that causes damage to a person’s lungs.
But unlike Mark, David ultimately succumbed to the disease. At age 18, David underwent a lung transplant, that allowed him to graduate from Amity the following year. “He got a standing ovation when he walked across that stage,” Levine remembered, saying how a strong support system helped them deal with setbacks and successes.
Erin Guise spoke how swimming became the source of all good things in her life, including meeting her husband when she was lifeguarding.
Volleyball star Janice Ehorn (Class of 2008) teared up when she thanked her parents and long-time Amity volleyball coach Paul Thees for their encouragement. She was named the Amity Team MVP three years in a row, 2006, 2007 and 2008.
- This year’s inductees into the Amity Hall of Fame and Hall of Honor include (from left) Gilbert Jennings, Michael Slomsky, Rob Leonard, Mark Levine, Erin (McLaughlin) Guise; Allison Barwise; Janice Ehorn, Coach Sal Coppola, and Lindsay Ciancola with a picture of her brother, Joseph. Not pictured is Scott Klein.
- Allison Barwise shared a hug with her former Track and Field coach, Brien Mahon, left, and his wife, Amity Principal Anna Mahon, at the Hall of Fame induction dinner.
- Amity Varsity baseball coach Sal Coppola received a standing ovation
By Bettina Thiel – Orange Town News Correspondent