“My father Joe Sr. was assistant basketball coach for 24 years before taking over as head coach at Frazier,” Lafko said. “He was able to bring me along with him to practices and Coach DiVirgilio was very supportive of me hanging around, and I remember many years of being on the sidelines and side baskets shooting for an entire practice while the teams were practicing and drilling. It was a time period that planted a seed in me as far as basketball and a passion for basketball. Frazier, when I was growing up in the 1970’s and going back to the 1960’s, had some outstanding success. As a young boy growing up and being a manager and being around that planted a seed in me and I still carry that passion today.”
Lafko excelled on the hardwood, the gridiron and the baseball diamond for the Commodores in the early 1980’s.
The 5-foot-10 Lafko was a scoring machine on some competitive Frazier basketball teams. The Commodores went 10-8 in Section 16 in 1981-82 and 8-4 in the section in 1982-83. Lafko and the Commodores finished 19-8 and captured the section title in 1983-84, but lost in the WPIAL playoffs to eventual Class AA State Champion Washington 85-54, despite a 34 point effort from Lafko.
In his sophomore season Lafko paced Fayette County in scoring with 548 points for an average of 23.8 ppg. As a junior he again led the county scoring race with 585 points for a 26.6 ppg average. Lafko completed a trifecta in his senior season - he again led Fayette County in scoring despite missing two games. He pumped in 646 points for an average of 25.8 ppg. His single game high point total was 54 in a 92-78 win over Waynesburg in 1983.
“I was fortunate enough to play as a sophomore and get some experience and continue to play through my senior year and stay healthy,” Lafko recalled. “It was a credit to my teammates throughout my time playing basketball at Frazier. I had Dion Diggs with me and he was a very good player and a good scorer, he complimented me well. We had guys like John Bendik, Thurman Wingrove and Ray Ciferno who played with me for a number of years.
I didn’t care about individual goals, winning has always been paramount and I think team success is always what you shoot for and as a coach now I appreciate that even more than I did as a player.”
Lafko is the All-Time leading scorer at Frazier and ranks fourth on the All Time Fayette County scoring list. Connellsville’s James Hairston tallied 2,245 points, German’s Sam Sims had a total of 2,102, Laurel Highlands Wil Robinson totaled 1,841 points and Lafko notched 1,763 career points.
“I always took an Al McGuire quote to heart – he said ‘Big players play big in big games’ and that’s something that I always took to heart as a player and I wanted to do whatever it took to win basketball games,” Lafko said.
He garnered All-section honors in basketball three years in a row and was All-WPIAL Class AA as a junior and a senior.
“My biggest influences were my dad and Coach Henry DiVirgilio,” Lafko stated. “Coach DiVirgilio was like a grandfather figure, he was in his early sixties at that time and 1984 was his last year as Head Basketball Coach. One thing that stood out to me about Coach DiVirgilio is that he never really got excited and never raised his tone with us. He was critical at times and there were times when we needed to be reprimanded, but he was always very calm and he was in control.”
Lafko’s exploits on the football field are also legendary. He helped lead Frazier to a 6-3 mark in his sophomore season in 1981. As a junior he caught 36 passes and averaged 23 yards per catch as the Commodores went 11-1, losing to Clairton in the WPIAL semi- finals 44-6. Lafko snagged 54 passes for 800 yards as a senior, as Frazier finished 11-2, losing to Western Beaver 29-16 in WPIAL Class A championship game.
“Looking back on the football career,” Lafko reflected. “It was a great experience playing for Coach Tom Salisbury and Coach Lew Sweitzer. All my teammates were great and we had a lot of success and it was a pleasure to be a part of that. There are a lot of great memories. Ray Ciferno was the quarterback and he was an excellent passer, he had a lot of good technique and he was able to throw the ball very well. The offensive linemen were outstanding in pass protection and I was just fortunate enough to play with a great group of guys and we had a lot of success and there are a lot of great memories from that time.
“Playing the WPIAL championship my senior year was a great experience. Western Beaver came out and played an outstanding game in the finals and one memory that stands out is that when we did get down, we came back and fought hard and scored some points and had some opportunities to get back in the game. I think that said a lot for the character of the team and the coaches.”
His football honors included Tri-County South All-Star honors as a sophomore, junior and a senior and All-WPIAL Class A as a junior and a senior. Lafko was a jack of all trades on the gridiron as a receiver and safety. His 37 career interceptions are still a WPIAL record. He also kicked off, punted, and returned punts and kickoffs for the Commodores.
“The interceptions speak to our success,” Lafko stated. “We got ahead and I was able to make plays in the secondary and my coaches put me in a position to make plays. Probably more than any other statistic that I accomplished as a player that speaks to the overall team success, none of that would have been possible on a team that wasn’t winning and wasn’t forcing teams to throw the ball.
“Playing both ways – I just didn’t like coming off the field. Anytime I could be out there helping my team to win – that’s what I wanted to do.”
The Frazier baseball squad also benefited from Lafko’s talents as a pitcher and a shortstop. He was one of the WPIAL’s top hitters as a junior with a batting average of .537.
When Lafko graduated he had to choose between sports as well as choosing a college.
“I had a number of options coming out of high school,” Lafko recalled. “I had to make a decision between sports. The final decision came down to a financial one and a chance to play basketball and baseball. Choosing Westminster gave me a chance to play basketball and also play baseball.”
Lafko was a four-year starter at Westminster in basketball and also excelled in baseball. He played on some very good hoop teams for the Titans who posted records of 15-12, 19-9, 21-4 and 21-5 during his years in New Wilmington.
“At that time District 18 which included teams like Saint Vincent, Waynesburg, and Point Park was a very competitive league,” Lafko explained. “We had a nemesis at Waynesburg that we could just never beat. Rudy Marisa had some outstanding teams and I think they were in the top four in the NAIA. I played with a good group of guys and I respected Coach Ron Galbreath as a coach and I had a great college experience.”
Lafko scored 1,239 points which is good for 18th place on the All-Time Titan scoring list. His 85 steals in 1987-88 are a school record. His 231 career steals are a school record. He ranks second in school history with 424 assists (105 games). As a senior in 1987-88, Lafko was named first team All-District 18. The other four were Ed Robinson (Pitt-Bradford), Darrin Walls (Waynesburg), Rob Montgomery (Waynesburg), and Shawn Ellis (Point Park). A 1988 Westminster graduate, he was inducted into the Titan Sports Hall of Fame in 1995.
After a brief stint in the professional world, Lafko got into teaching and coaching. He compiled a record of 59-80 at Warren High School before moving on to Hampton where he has compiled a record of 373-168 in 20 seasons. He has coached the Talbots to one WPIAL AAA title in 2009 and a WPIAL Class AAA runner-up spots in 2006, 2010, and 2012. They were Class AAAA runners up in 2013 and 2014. The Talbots advanced to the PIAA semi -finals in 2009.
“I always said there were three main influences in my life as far as coaching is concerned.” Lafko explained. “My father and my two coaches – Coach DiVirgilio and Coach Ron Galbreath at Westminster, all those men had an impact on my life and showing me how to coach the right way with their actions, and how they treated players and how they talked to people.”
Lafko, 50, resides in Gibsonia, PA with his wife of 24 years Shannon and their two children Jenna and Joey.