Sharon mourns deaths of 2 football players in crash

Accident also kills a father of two


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Along a curving stretch of roadway that has been the site of other, similar accidents in Sharon, two vehicles collided head-on Friday night when one crossed the center line, killing three people, injuring four and devastating a school district and its football program.

Two of the dead were football players for the playoff-caliber Sharon Tigers, while two of the injured were their teammates. All four were seniors. All had grown up in this Mercer County community along the Shenango River.

"They had all come up through the system together. These were four boys who were all Sharon born and bred," Sharon City School District Acting Superintendent Michael Calla said Saturday. "Their heart was Sharon."

Killed were Corey Swartz, 18; Evan Gill, 17; and the driver of the other vehicle, John Zdelar Jr., 50, of Brookfield, Ohio.

Injured were students Craig and Greg Osmon, who are 17-year-old twins, and two children in Mr. Zdelar's vehicle, his stepson, Evan Wallace, 10, and the youngster's friend, Blake Yenderak, 12.

Mr. Swartz was behind the wheel of a Mazda Tribute sport utility vehicle when it crossed the center line on East Connelly Boulevard near the Oakland Avenue viaduct and slammed into Mr. Zdelar's Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck, according to police.

Sharon police said investigators do not suspect alcohol, drugs or texting in the crash. Instead, investigators are focusing on speed, according to the superintendent.

"They feel that speed was probably a factor and the car that Corey was driving, he lost control and he may have overcompensated and ended up in the lane with the other vehicle," Mr. Calla said.

He said he had gotten that information directly from Sharon police Chief Michael J. Menster.

In an email exchange, Chief Menster confirmed that he had a "private conversation" with the superintendent but declined to "officially confirm speed information at this time."

Originally there had been five young men in the SUV. The teammates had gone to watch a playoff game at Hickory High School in Hermitage and were returning home in time to meet the 11 p.m. curfew imposed in advance of their own playoff game, scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday in Erie against the Girard Yellowjackets.

Mr. Swartz dropped off fellow Tiger Troy Hejazi first. They were headed toward Evan Gill's home on the west side of town when the accident occurred around 10:05 p.m., Mr. Calla said.

Evan Gill was thrown from the vehicle, police said. He and Mr. Swartz were pronounced dead at the scene. Mr. Zdelar was pronounced dead around 10:52 p.m. at Sharon Regional Health System.

Evan Wallace was taken to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC while Blake was treated at Sharon Regional and released.

The Osmons were ultimately taken to St. Elizabeth Health Center in Youngstown.

Robert Osmon, 51, the fraternal twins' father, was anxious Saturday afternoon as he sat in a Broward County, Fla., hotel room waiting for a flight back to Sharon. He works in Miami and said when he was called Friday night he did not realize the gravity of the accident.

"I got a phone call last night that said they got in a car accident. I'm thinking a broken arm, no big deal," Mr. Osmon said. "I'm a nervous wreck. I'm freaked out about my kids. I'm 1,300 miles away."

Mr. Osmon said one of his boys -- he is not sure which one -- had a compound fracture of the femur and had to be taken back to surgery this morning because of an elbow injury.

Nikki Colson, whose son, Daniel Vanderslice, is on the football team, said he might have been with the other boys if not for fate.

"They called my son to ask if he wanted to go the Hickory football game. He said no. He wanted to take his girlfriend to the movies," Ms. Colson said. "It's horrible."

Following the crash, the notifications began. Mr. Calla said he heard from the high school principal around 10:45 p.m. News was limited and bad information was flying around on social media, he said.

Mr. Calla went to the hospital in Sharon along with other administrators, coaches, members of the football team and their parents. It was a reserved, somber scene, and the students cried and swapped stories.

Grief counselors were made available and will continue to assist students and adults Monday.

Mr. Calla called the incident "a tremendous tragedy, a tremendous loss to the community and the school. These were senior leaders, leaders on the football field, leaders in the school itself. It'll be a loss felt for a long, long time in Sharon." Sharon Athletic Director Paul Torr described the young men as popular "student athletes" who were known and liked throughout the district and beyond.

The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association acted quickly to cancel Saturday's playoff game. Around 12:30 a.m. PIAA's District 10 posted a note about the accident and the cancellation.

"It's always a very devastating kind of event to all concerned and even for people not involved in Sharon or Sharon athletics, it does kind of touch you deeply, and it's very, very unfortunate," said Pete Iacino, secretary and Mercer County representative to the PIAA District 10 committee.

"Certainly our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the two students that were killed and the two students injured and also to the entire Sharon community. It's a pretty tight-knit community."

So tight-knit that after the Tigers' head coach, Jim Wildman, consulted with the families of the dead and injured players, the decision was made to reschedule the playoff game for Monday at 7 p.m.

It was determined that "we would fall back to the families of the four boys," Mr. Calla said, "and all of them said our boys would want this game to be played, so we opted to go that route."


Jonathan D. Silver: jsilver@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1962 or on Twitter @jsilverpg.

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