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Unbeaten '63 football team, 4 people inducted into Ironwood Area Sports Hall of Fame


Pat Krause/Daily Globe photo

Members of Ironwood's 1963 undefeated football team include from left, first row: Bill Bassett, Roland Pakonen, coach Wayne Melchiori, assistant coach Harold Palmer, Tom Negri and Don Keskey; second row: Paul Carlson, Bob Miklesh, Tom Tezak, Guy Kangas, Ed Tafelski, Domenic Longhini, Brian Landretti, Jim LaBlonde, Charles Ravey and Paul Belmas.

IRONWOOD – One of the nice things about events such as the 2014 Induction Ceremony of the Ironwood Area Sports Hall of Fame is that everyone walks out into a warm summer evening feeling good about the night's festivities.

It happened again on Saturday night at the Gogebic Community College Lindquist Center Courtside Dining Room with four new individual inductees and the undefeated 1963 Ironwood Red Devil football team entering the Hall of Fame. They included Percy Smith (Class of 1961), basketball coach Harry Peterson, Larry Passint (Class of 1971) and Jay Synkelma (Class of 1981).

Kristen Ruppe was one of Ironwood's finest female athletes and was to be inducted with the 2014 Hall of Fame class. Due to an out-of-town commitment, she requested that she be inducted with the Class of 2015.

Percy Smith (Class of 1961)

Percy Smith may be best remembered a long-time principal and superintendent in the Ironwood Area Schools, but he was also an excellent athlete at Luther L. Wright High School, collecting 12 letters in four sports. Only a series of injuries prevented him from increasing that total and possibly playing at a major college or university.

As a senior in 1960-61, Smith was at his best, being a co-caption and leader on the Red Devil football team that had a sparkling 7-1 record and he received scholarship offers from many four-year schools, including Michigan.

Smith said he found out that you don't accomplish anything on your own in life. There is always a parent, teacher, coach or someone else who sees something in you and helps and guides you along the way.

Smith said he always thought his coach and former Michigan football player, Wayne Melchiori, had something to do with the scholarship offer to punt for the Wolverines and he thanked others who helped in his life. One was his wife, Mary, and Smith noted that on the day of his induction, they had first dated 55-years ago.

But Smith was a talented punter. In his senior year, Smith was punting in pre-game warm-ups against Rhinelander. Smith's punts kept landing on the other side of the field where the Rhinelander players were warming up.

The Rhinelander coach got upset with Melchiori and finally told him to have his punter back up and kick from his own end zone.

"He's already kicking from the end zone," Melchiori replied.

Smith had basketball talent and as the senior center and captain on the basketball team, he helped guide the Red Devils to its first Class B regional title in 19-years.

Smith told the audience that if they were from Ironwood, it was important to support and give something back to the community, the Hall of Fame or education. It was Smith who was one of the founding members of the Ironwood Area Sports Hall of Fame. As an educator, he initiated the Ironwood Area Scholarship Foundation, which enables any senior filling out an application to receive a scholarship.

Coach Harry Peterson

Harry Peterson finally got the recognition he deserved as a basketball coach.

Coaches with very good players and teams are sometimes over-looked and fans give all the credit to the players. For awhile, Phil Jackson of the NBA heard that any coach could coach players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and win championships. Later, people came to realize Jackson was one of the best coaches in the NBA.

Ron Trethewey spoke on Peterson's behalf and he noted that Ironwood may have had some of its best teams ever when the Red Devils posted a 59-12 record playing in the very tough Great Northern Conference from 1973-76. Those teams captured two straight Class B regional titles and were the first recipients of the Stephen W. Kleiman Memorial trophy, symbolic of U.P. Class B supremacy.

Although Peterson won Coach-of-the-Year honors in Class B twice, he was never the type of coach or person to call attention to himself.

But Peterson could coach and he was a darned good one. After five years in Rogers City, Peterson spent 20 years as Ironwood's head basketball coach. Not only did he show his coaching longevity, but he also became the all-time winningest coach in school history with a record of 254-159.

Only recently did his former player, Pete Lewinski, go ahead of him in wins at Ironwood.

Trethewey stated that Peterson was a "builder of good teams, not individuals," which was the sign of a good coach.

In typical fashion, Peterson said he felt fortunate to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. He thanked his assistant coaches, who helped make the program a great success and he thanked all the players who played for him over the years. He thanked the fans who came to so many of the games he coached.

But he was most thankful to his family for their support and the many sacrifices they had in a coach's family.

Larry Passint (Class of 1971)

Larry Passint sent out a lot of thank yous in his speech. One of them went to coach Harry Peterson for teaching him a lot about basketball and another was for taking his brother, Randy, out of a game in Gladstone when he had scored 38 points.

"I had the school record of 39," Passint joked.

Passint remembers being around Ironwood athletics at a very young age and met the larger than life John Krznarich at age five. Passint said Krznarich told him he was going to be a batboy in Little League, but never spared any punches, even with five-year olds.

"The next game is Monday at 4:30 and don't be late, knucklehead," Krznarich said.

Passint was a versatile, excellent athlete who had the talent to letter in four sports.

Passint earned all-conference honors as an offensive end, but it was basketball where he made his mark.

He scored 336 points in his career and was named to the Michigan-Wisconsin All-Conference First Team as a senior. He was awarded the Jack Kraemer Memorial Award as the outstanding senior in the M-W conference.

As a freshman guard at Gogebic Community College, Passint averaged 20 points a game and earned Third Team All-Region 13 honors.

Passint continued in sports after college as a coach and referee, but his priorities have changed.

"My championships are now with my family," Passint said.

Passint follows younger brother, Randy, into the Hall of Fame.

Jay Synkelma (Class of 1981)

Master of Ceremonies, Tim Kolesar, said Jay Synkelma badly wanted to attend his induction into the IASHOF, but could not because of work-related scheduling problems in Arizona.

It really should not have come as too much of a surprise, because Synkema's world has always revolved around golf.

Growing up close to the Gogebic Country Club, there was no truth to the story that Synkelma actually slept at the golf course. But he could have been called "a golf nut" in a good sort of way, because he loved the game of golf.

Although Synkelma was an outstanding golfer in his high school years and could break par, there was no formal golf program to show off his talents in his senior year.

With the help of a local committee from the country club, led by Nick Milakovich, Synkelma enrolled at Palm Beach Community College and worked on his golf game.

He helped his golf team to a fifth place finish in the Junior College National Championship in 1984.

Synkelma turned pro in 1990 and qualified for the Nike tour. During his six years on the tour, he had six first place wins and other top 10 finishes.

Synkelma now teaches golf at the Hilton Golf Academy and works out of the Conquistador Country Club in Tucson, Ariz.

1963 Ironwood football team

Wayne Melchiori had two undefeated teams during his coaching tenure and it was the 1963 team that surprised everyone (except themselves) with an 8-0 record.

The team scored 183 points, while giving up only 24 (three points per game). The '63 team won the Michigan-Wisconsin Conference title that year.

And yet the '63 team has been looked upon as the little brother to the big brother 1965 team, Melchiori's other undefeated team. Melchiori said that shouldn't be the case.

"The 1965 team was a powerful team with 60 players and good players at all positions," Melchiori said. "But the '63 team was a wonderful team to coach. They may not have been the best or second-best team I had in Ironwood or good enough to be undefeated, but they were undefeated. They were my favorite team."

Player Bill Bassett said the only real debate before the season was whether the team would finish fourth or fifth in the conference or maybe third.

"But we knew it was all about the team, the team, the team," Bassett said. "The players and coaches all did such an outstanding job in planning, teamwork, discipline, hard work, camaraderie and everything.

"It was fantastic and that's why we went undefeated. I was so proud to represent Ironwood when we went out on the field."

Melchiori said that early in the week of games even the coaches thought the other team had more talented players, but the Red Devil players would have none of it.

"They would always ask,'What can we do to win?'" Melchiori said. "We all pulled together and we never had any problems.

"I was really proud of that team. The '63 team turned out to be one strong team and it was the only team I had that kicked a field goal."

More awards

Tony White was also presented an Award of Recognition as the 2014 Fan of the Year before the induction ceremony began.

Community members wishing to nominate a coach, athlete or area sports booster may visit or contact a board member for nomination papers.


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