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Former coach has his day on court

February 03, 2005|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

MONT ALTO, Pa. - He never coached a game there, but Wednesday night was John Benchoff's night at the Multipurpose Activities Center of Penn State Mont Alto.

Benchoff, who coached the men's basketball team for 22 years before his death in 1993, was honored during a ceremony between the women's and men's games and two students were recognized as the inaugural recipients of the John Benchoff Scholar-Athlete Awards.

"About two weeks before he died, he was present for the dedication," said daughter Paige Benchoff, one of seven family members present for the ceremony, including his 3-month-old great-grandson King Unique Benchoff-Byrd.

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"I don't think he ever saw a game in the building," said his widow, Barbara Boyer.

While best known on campus as a coach, Boyer said she was pleased by the academic scholarship created by the Penn State Mont Alto Alumni Society in his name.

The alumni group has raised $13,000 toward the $50,000 endowment needed for the scholarship, said campus spokeswoman Holly Cieri. Donations are being solicited and proceeds from a Sept. 24 auction on campus will benefit the scholarship fund, she said.

"This building was a dream when we played here," said Joe Beczak of Chicago, who played forward for the Lions in the 1970s. He recalled the days when the team played its games in the confines of the East Junior High School gymnasium in Waynesboro, Pa., and Benchoff often drove the bus to practices "like a Formula One race car driver."

"Nobody could drive their car from the campus to Waynesboro as fast as he could drive that bus," Beczak said.

Beczak remembered Benchoff describing himself as an "avowed football coach," who nevertheless was able to pull his players together into a team.

Scott Rebert of Hanover, Pa., who played with Beczak, said the team started one season 2-4 before Benchoff switched to a three-guard lineup. "We went 13-2 the rest of the way," he said.

Beczak likened him to the coach played by Gene Hackman in the movie, "Hoosiers." He was gruff and disciplined, "but once you earned his respect, he treated you like an equal."

Longtime family friend Bryan Stevenson of Quincy, Pa., did not play for Benchoff, but recalled his boyhood days when his grandfather drove the team to games and he would ride along. He also remembered him as a friend who was there to help Stevenson's family when his mother was seriously ill.

"I'll never forget that," he said.

Benchoff, who also served as assistant director of students, programs and services during his 23 years at Mont Alto, also served the public in many other ways. He had just been elected to a second term as mayor of Greencastle, Pa., when he died.

The winner of the John Benchoff Scholar-Athlete Awards were junior Jen Ortega of Chambersburg, Pa., a guard and nursing major; and Urick Lewis, a senior from Philadelphia majoring in family studies.

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