Altemus' impact felt everywhere

Coach positively influenced players at multiple stops

August 7, 2019 Cranberry Local Sports

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This is the seventh in a series of eight articles profiling the Seneca Valley Sports Hall of Fame's Class of 2019.

GIBSONIA — The most any coach can hope for is to make a positive impact with players and for a program.

Clair Altemus has done that ... multiple times.

The 1970 Seneca Valley graduate oversaw the turnaround of football programs at both Grove City High School and Pine-Richland.

Prior to that, he served as an assistant grid coach at his alma mater for 17 seasons and was the defensive coordinator on SV's 1989 team that played for the WPIAL championship at Three Rivers Stadium.

Altemus will be inducted into the SV Sports Hall of Fame in September.

“Honestly, I was shocked. I was nothing special as a player and was an assistant coach at Seneca for a lot of years,” said Altemus. “But I will gladly accept it.”

High school athletes often reach a turning point in their playing careers. For Altemus, it came at the start of his sophomore year in 1967.

“I came to the varsity team as a running back,” he said. “During a practice before the season, Tom (Heckendorn, head coach) pulled me aside and asked me if I wanted to start. Of course, I did. He told me the center is the smartest guy on the offensive line and that sold me. He worked with me, 1-on-1, that day.”

Altemus went on to start at center his junior and senior years. He still has great respect for Heckendorn and his coaching methods.

“He was my mentor and I absorbed everything I could from him,” he said. “I remember thinking back then, if I ever became a coach, I was going to treat players like he did. He worked his tail off and helped kids get to college and continue to play football. He helped me in that way.”

After graduating from Salem College in West Virginia in 1974, Altemus returned to Seneca Valley as an art teacher and joined the staff of then-head coach Ed Cary.

He was an assistant coach at North Allegheny 1983-85 before returning to the Raiders to run the defense under head coach Terry Henry in 1986.

“Terry added a lot of stability to the program,” said Altemus. “Regarding the defense, he just told me to prove that I could do it and we wouldn't have a problem ... and we didn't. He ran the offense and I did the defense.”

Following the 1992 season, Altemus took on the first of two rebuilding projects, introducing himself to District 10 at Grove City.

“When I got there, we had 25 or 27 kids on the varsity team and finished with three wins,” he said. “The next year, the number of kids doubled and we won a conference title.

“With kids playing other sports, you have to go find the talent. It's out there and it comes in all different shapes and sizes.”

After four seasons in Mercer County, Altemus was given an opportunity he could not pass up.

Pine-Richland was searching for a head coach. Though the Rams had been struggling consistently, Altemus applied for the job.

“They hadn't won 10 games in the previous 10 years,” said Altemus. “They were going to cut the program, but the taxpayers got together and demanded that the district find a new head coach.

“It gave me a chance to get back to the WPIAL and closer to home,” he said.

Altemus got the job and led the Rams to a conference title in his third season. In 2002, the Rams played for a WPIAL title. The next year, they won it and went on to play in the state title game.

“A lot of credit goes to my assistants,” said Altemus. “They would go watch other sports and recruit kids for the football team. That title was the fruit of our labor.”

Altemus also served as Pine-Richland's athletic director for 15 years and was instrumental in the building of the district's Santacroce Stadium, which includes a turf field and seats over 6,000 people. The venue opened in 2001.

“As the AD, I was responsible for 22 teams,” said Altemus. “I didn't want Pine-Richland to be known as a football factory. So many teams make use of the turf. The football team gets off and the band gets on. The band gets off and the soccer teams get to use it. Lacrosse, field hockey ... It's a constant movement of bodies and because of that, the stadium sold itself.”

Altemus retired as AD in the spring of 2012 and coached his final season of football the following autumn.

“I was at peace when I walked away,” he said. “I had coached almost 40 years and felt good about leaving Eric (Kasperowicz, current coach) a good team when I left.”

Altemus has four daughters — Kelly, Leslie, Shayna and Marissa.

“They are my life,” he said. “They've given me three grandbabies.”

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Derek Pyda

Derek Pyda

- Graduated from Connellsville High School in 1996
- Graduated from Clarion University in 2000 with a Bachelors in Communications
- Have also written for Clarion News (Clarion, PA) and the Herald-Standard (Uniontown, PA)
- Started at the Butler Eagle on April 2, 2002
- Interests include sports, history and geography