UNIVERSITY PARK - There weren't any teams from District 6 or District 5 playing at the Bryce Jordan Center in the PIAA basketball championships this weekend, but one area girl did get to perform on the big stage.
Patton's Emily Kirk, a 16-year-old junior at Cambria Heights High School, sang the national anthem before Saturday afternoon's Class A girls and Class AA boys finals.
"Singing's my passion,'' Kirk said. "In front of all those people, it's nerve-wracking, but you've got to push through it, and you've got to keep going.''
Kirk said singing in front of larger audiences is a bit of an exercise to deal with nervousness, but she's had a lot of practice now. In December, Kirk performed the national anthem before Tyrone's PIAA Class AA final against Lancaster Catholic. She's also sung twice before Altoona Curve games, after which her uncle, former District 6 chairman Stan Bem, told her she should send an audition tape to the PIAA.
"I waited two weeks and they called the one day while I was at school musical practice and said, 'You got the gig. Are you coming?' I was like, 'Sure. Why not?''' Kirk said.
Kirk is a member of both the school and honors chorus at Heights, she takes part in all her school productions, cantors in her church choir every Sunday and sings at services at the funeral home her family owns.
"I was singing ever since I could walk, even though that might have been moaning,'' Kirk joked. "Then I got into my school musicals, and I kept singing.''
Kirk said country is her favorite kind of music, and her favorite artists are Taylor Swift and Brad Paisley. She's hoping to audition for "The Voice'' next year, if her mother gives the OK. Surprisingly, her life's goal isn't to become a recording artist, however.
"I want to become a physical therapist and go into sports medicine. The dream is to become a physical therapist and, if not, then get a recording contract. But I'm going to keep going with my singing. I'm not going to stop,'' said Kirk, who is a member of the Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science and Family Career Community Leaders of America, as well.
Forbes Road's Olivia Mills also represented the region, singing the Star-Spangled Banner during Friday's early session.
Ebensburg's Darrell Jones was another familiar area face at the games, and, although he played a significant role, it wasn't nearly as visible as Kirk's.
Jones, who is retiring after 28 years as an official, didn't get any legwork during his last active weekend, but he was at the scorers table for all eight games, on call as the alternate should any of the referees assigned to work the state championship games be unable to go.
"It's an honor,'' Jones said. "Quite honestly, I think [PIAA associate executive director] Bob Lombardi took care of me. I had called him earlier and let him know that I was going to retire. I didn't want him to hear it from anybody else. It was a little going-away present. He picked me up.''
Jones has worked three state finals, the first coming in the mid-1990s with Dave Baronner and Dave Reimer at the Giant Center. Later, he was part of a crew with another Blair County duo, Dave Heim Jr. and Henry Hansard.
He worked in last year's finals with Bill Correll and John Thompson.
Jones, 64, got into officiating when he went to a game with friends Paul Ponchione and Joe Lutz, both established refs. When Jones gave them a hard time about the officiating in the junior varsity game, they told him he couldn't complain unless he got his officials certification.
So, the Memphis native by way of Columbus accepted the challenge, and he's happy he did.
"I've made the greatest friends in the world,'' Jones said.
Jones, though, began to experience leg problems in recent years, and the grind of working five and six nights per week hasn't helped. He plans to remain involved as an evaluator and to spend time with his family.
"The grandkids are going to have fun,'' Jones said. "We're going to spend some of Grandpa's money.''
One of the boys
Brittaney Badgett almost got into the Class A final on Friday, which would be unremarkable except that she was playing for the Lincoln Park Charter boys team.
Badgett actually was sent to the scorers table in the final two minutes of the Leopards' loss to Constitution but was recalled to the bench before getting on the floor.
Lincoln Park doesn't have a girls basketball team, so Badgett's only option is to play for the boys team, which she is allowed to do under PIAA rules.
Ironically, this marked the 40th year the PIAA has held championships in girls basketball. The first was in 1973, when Allentown Central Catholic beat Sharpsville, 65-38, at the Harrisburg Farm Show Arena.
New man in charge
In a move that was somewhat anticipated, Lombardi on Friday morning was voted to take over for Brad Cashman as PIAA executive director as the end of this school year.
A former teacher and coach in the Wayne Highlands School District in the northeastern part of the state, Lombardi has worked in the PIAA office since 1988 and was promoted to associate executive director in 1994 when Brad Cashman was elevated to the top position in the organization.
"We're excited,'' Lombardi said of the step up.
Lombardi said one of his first priorities as executive director will be to "increase communication within our membership'' and to promote the positive experiences and life lessons that come out of taking part in interscholastic athletics.
Another issue that has been drawing attention in recent years is the issue of charter schools, which have had an increased presence in the smaller-school brackets lately. Charter schools are public schools that have the ability to draw students, theoretically, from anywhere.
They are guaranteed the right to PIAA membership by the same state legislation that allows private schools to be part of the organization.
"They are member schools that follow our rules and regulations, and they get the same rights as anyone else,'' Lombardi said. "Is it something that there is beginning to be discussions about? Yes. But I think later on that's a board issue.''
In other news from the PIAA board meeting, a third classification was adopted for cross country beginning in the fall, the plans to begin holding a championship in competitive cheerleading as a winter sport were finalized and the vote on the proposal to change the format of the volleyball tournament was pushed back to May after further discussions could be made with the steering committee.
Imhotep Charter's overtime victory over Beaver Falls in the Class AA boys final on Saturday left the western side of the state 1-7 in this year's finals. Seton-LaSalle's victory in Class AA girls to start the weekend averted the sweep.
The odds were a bit stacked in favor of the east, which had teams come out of the former western part of the bracket to make the finals in Class AAA girls and Class AAAA boys.
Public schools and private schools equally split the eight trophies, 4-4. Philadelphia's Constitution and Imhotep accounted for two of the public school wins, although they are non-traditional public schools. Constitution is a history-based prep school, while Imhotep is a charter school.