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The Zak Zone

March 1, 2012

I hate to admit this, but I used to be a little bit ashamed to call Punxsutawney my hometown.

I learned from an early age, as I traveled to roller hockey tournaments across the country, that telling people you were from Punxsutawney quickly drew the same question no matter where you found yourself visiting: "Hey, that's where that groundhog is from, right?"

Now, the embarrassment grew stronger as a teenager, after Bill Murray put Punxsutawney on the map for folks outside the quirky circle who had already heard of our little, local holiday.

I recall, on a church youth group trip to International Youth Convention in Orlando, Fla., during high school, telling a group of fellow tourists in a two-hour long line with us for a particular roller coaster that I was from Punxsy.

The next two hours were spent describing the myths and legends, the ins and outs, of Phil's prognostication.

In a sense, I started to feel like other people's infatuation with Phil was ruining my vacation time.

So, I started telling people I was from Reynoldsville. Nobody had ever heard of Reynoldsville, and I spent enough time there growing up that I didn't feel as if I was lying to them.

The mention of Reynoldsville didn't ever ring a bell, and when they further inquired, I failed to mention Punxsy, as I described the approximate location in terms of distance from Pittsburgh. Typically, they'd ask how far it is from Pittsburgh, and I'd tell them about an hour-and-a-half northeast.

From then on, the conversation would be centered around the quirky nature of western Pennsylvanians describing distances in hours and minutes instead of miles.

At that point, it was a welcome change from discussing the Prognosticator of Prognosticators.

Facing graduation, though, a new reason to take pride in my hometown started to arise: Local sports.

I have always loved sports, but as I have confessed to you all time and again, I stunk at them.

I wasn't in very good shape, unless you consider round a shape, and I was too slow to keep up in a majority of the sports I played. I was a better bench warmer than I was a player, unless I was in my driveway.

I grew up idolizing many different athletes in each particular sport: Mike "Spanky" LaValliere and Andy Van Slyke in baseball, Mario Lemieux in hockey and Bubby Brister in football.

But by the time my senior year rolled around, my new favorite athlete was emerging.

He'd been around, and I'd known about him far longer than anyone else had, because I grew up sharing a home with him. He was my brother, Marc.

Growing up, he was an All-Star baseball player, at least by Little League standards, and his teams always went far, and I followed their every move.

But by high school — I was a senior, he was a freshman — I was starting to realize just how much potential I saw in this kid.

And it reignited my passion for proclaiming my residency of Punxsutawney.

I was hooked from that time forward, as a member of the Chucks fan club, and I started to proudly proclaim my town of residence, even allowing others to discuss the groundhog if they preferred to ... as long as it tied into the Chucks' mascot being the Chucks and not the Punxsy Groundhogs.

After I graduated, I headed off to college, where I was forced to follow my brother's athletic career via phone call, as the Internet's "just Google it" trend was yet to fully develop.

I proudly proclaimed my fanhood for my brother and for the town of Punxsutawney. I was a changed young man.

Today, as the one charged with trying desperately to follow as much about the town's sports happenings as possible, I have come to the realization that the town of Punxsy, far beyond the groundhog, still has a lot for which to be proud.

This past weekend, I traveled to Clarion University, my alma mater, for the District IX Class AAA Individual Wrestling Championships, and two Chucks came home with D-IX titles.

Cheering for local sports teams is so much more personal than a connection to a professional team.

As much as I enjoy cheering for the Steelers, I've never played church league softball with any of the players on their roster.

Congratulations to Seth Spack and Perry Arrington for their D-IX titles, but in addition to the Punxsy athletes who won their respective titles, the town of Punxsy has a lot more to be proud of than its winners.

I watched three seniors — Neko Cappella, Carl Langley and Josh Neal — battle their way to the D-IX finals en route to advancing to Regionals. And despite losses in the final round, the Chucks fought with class and represented the town well.

When each of them heard the final horn ring for their individual bout, none hung his head.

That's because each one of them had certainly given every ounce of what he had in the tank during his performance. Each had nothing to be ashamed of.

This weekend, I'll make the same trek to Clarion to take in the boys' basketball D-IX Championship Game.

While the Chucks know entering the game that it won't be their final of the season, as the top two seeds advanced to the PIAA State Championships, I'm confident the Chucks will give their all on the court in hopes of bringing home the title.

If they don't win, though, I'm also confident they'll represent my hometown with class and dignity, because all season, I've watched them do so over and over again.

While the wrestlers' regional tournament is outside my traveling radius this weekend, I'm confident the Chucks grapplers will put the same effort forth they did last weekend to characterize what my town is all about.

And although the Lady Chucks' basketball season came to an end last Friday with a loss to the undefeated Lady Owls of Bradford, it was a pleasure to watch a young team that started the season 0-7 battle back and display the fighting spirit I see ingrained in this town to finish the season on a 9-6 run and take a shot at the playoffs.

Winter sports athletes, you all continued to give me a reason to be proud of calling Punxsutawney my home town this sports season.

When someone asks me, "Isn't that where the groundhog is from?" I can now tell them proudly, "Yes, but there's so much more to my town than that."

I look forward to seeing what the future holds for you all as your postseasons continue.

And when those end, I know the spring sports athletes are looking forward to stepping in to represent this town, as well.

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