‘Just like Jay’

Published 1:40 pm Saturday, July 10, 2010

It wasn’t a class reunion, though it had the feel of one.

Hundreds of Albert Lea High School grads, with name tags denoting their graduation year, filled the Wedgewood Cove clubhouse Friday night to greet old friends, share stories and honor the most accomplished athletes in Tiger history.

No, they weren’t all from the same graduating year, they were all jocks.

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“I haven’t seen this many in one place since the Nike convention,” Orrie Jirele, master of ceremonies, joked at the beginning of the program.

The night marked the inaugural Albert Lea High School Hall of Fame banquet, honoring 10 individual athletes and coaches and the 11 state championship teams.

By and large, you could find different stories of success at almost every table in the banquet room.

At one table sat Angie Pappas, a 1940 Albert Lea graduate and the Tiger’s first cheerleader, known as pom pom girls back then. She sat with her three sons, Jim, Chuck and Mike, all three of whom were on state championship teams in high school. Angie brought a cow bell to her three boys’ sporting events when they were in high school. She would ring it during their games and she brought it again to the banquet that night.

“They told me if I brought it they wouldn’t sit with me,” said Angie, laughing.

Adjacent to the Pappas, two families shared a table, the Ludtkes and Senskes. Hazel Senske’s three sons, Greg, Jim and Bruce all played football at Albert Lea and then at Concordia College-Moorhead. They were joined by Craig Ludtke, who also played for Albert Lea and then for Concordia. All four played in the defensive backfield.

“This is such a great thing,” said Hazel, scanning the crowd in the banquet hall.

Before introducing the speaker, Vinny Cerrato, Jirele made sharp references to some inductees, specifically coaches Jim Gustafson and Leroy Maas.

“I thought I was an old retired coach,” Jirele said. “But with guys like Gus and Leroy around, I feel pretty young tonight.”

Jirele introduced Cerrato, a 1972 graduate and inaugural inductee, to the stage, who credited the supportive Albert Lea administration, principal, athletic director, his coaches and teammates for his success during high school, college and as former vice president of football operations for the Washington Redskins.

“Albert Lea gave me the opportunity to grow and develop,” Cerrato said. “Not only as an athlete, but as a person.”

Cerrato spoke admirably of Jim Gustafson and LeRoy Maas, calling them the “godfathers” of their respective sports.

“They need to be inducted,” said Cerrato of the retired coaches. “I appreciate Gus for starting the football program in Albert Lea.”

Cerrato called inductees Greg Shoff and Jay Gustafson his role models growing up as he watched them both play in Albert Lea, and later, Shoff at the University of Minnesota.

“Those are guys you wanted to grow up and be like,” Cerrato said. “Playing in the yard at home, I wanted to be number 13, just like Jay.”

Cerrato also mentioned Ben Woodside, the Hall of Fame’s youngest inductee, who couldn’t make the ceremony because he’s playing in NBA Summer League with the Golden State Warriors.

“I guess Ben’s career took off right after Orrie left,” said Cerrato, to a roar of laughs.

Cerrato then told stories of life after Albert Lea, including recruiting trips with iconic former Notre Dame football coach, Lou Holtz, drafting Terrell Owens to the San Francisco 49ers and being in the hospital with the family of Washington Redskin Sean Taylor, the night he was shot and killed in Miami.

The night ended with short speeches from inductees, the most emotional from LeRoy Maas, who just celebrated his 70th wedding anniversary with his wife.

Former Albert Lea basketball coach Matt Addington accepted for Ben Woodside.

The second annual Albert Lea High School Athletic Hall of Fame induction banquet will be held around the same time next year.