On Friday, Nov. 16 Larry Cunningham, Melissa Sanchez, David Finley, Fred Morawczski and the 1982 baseball team were all recognized and inducted into the Highlander Hall of Fame for their superior athletic accomplishments. All four former student-athletes and the 1982 baseball team that won the Division II NCAA Championship were some of the best that have ever played for UCR and their stats and accomplishments during their time at the university have proven that.
Each newly inducted member of the Hall of Fame took the stage at the Mission Inn Hotel and Spa to reflect on their UCR athletic career in their college years at Riverside.
Larry Cunningham was the first to accept the honor and give his acceptance speech. He expressed the disbelief he had when first hearing that he would be getting inducted into the Hall saying, “When I received the phone call, I thought it was a friend of mine from high school playing a trick on me.” Cunningham added, “I never imagined myself standing up here in front of an audience talking about accomplishments I had 10 years ago.” The newly inducted Hall of Famer played for the men’s basketball team from 2004-08 and is the program’s all-time leading scorer.
Cunningham redshirted his freshman year to gain weight and add muscle to his then-skinny frame. Even though he wasn’t playing with the team, he continued to work hard everyday to improve his body and his skillset. “That redshirt year I spent every morning 6 a.m. sharp, with Coach Roy, basically we were in the weight room trying to improve my strength,” Cunningham shared. Cunningham became slightly overwhelmed with emotion while recalling all of his hard work he put in to reach this milestone.
Cunningham averaged more than 10 points per game in every season he played on his way to 1,502 career points. The Class of 2018 Hall of Famer also averaged a career-high 16.3 points per game in his senior year.
David Finley was the second to give his acceptance speech, and although he was unable to make it in person, he made his acceptance speech via video. Finley called the honor “unexpected” and “humbling” while thanking the athletic committee for voting him into the Hall.
Finley went on to thank his parents, wife, kids and coaches for supporting him throughout his baseball career and life. He ended his acceptance video by saying, “Lastly, I just wanted to say how special UC Riverside is. I go all over the country, all over the world scouting. I’ve been to almost every campus in the world, all the major colleges that are more famous, bigger names, but our alumni at Riverside are second-to-none.”
Finley was a starter for the UCR baseball from 1986-87 and currently works as a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He posted the sixth-highest batting average over a single season (.413), in program history.
Third up to accept the prestigious honor of entering the Hall was former UCR softball star Mellisa Sanchez. Sanchez started off her speech admitting how nerve wracking speaking in front of everyone was, but as she got deeper and deeper into her speech she grew more comfortable. She reflected on her career in the sport, saying, “Who would’ve known that little girl in center field who picked flowers during the game would be standing up in front of you.”
Sanchez’s earliest and fondest memories of softball are playing catch with her father. She credits those moments with her father as the start of her love for the game. The star softball player shared the important values the sport taught her. “Almost every lesson that I learned was from playing softball. Teamwork, organization, commitment, communication are just a few, but the most important one I learned was about failure,” she said. “Softball as most of you know is a game of failure, where you can fail 70 percent of the time and still be a pretty solid player. I thrived off those failures. Everytime I failed, my will to win, to get better, grew larger.”
Sanchez actually started off as a pitcher, but changed positions because as she described in her own words, “I was not good at it at all.” She also desired to change positions because she wanted to be on the other side to make opposing pitchers fear her as she walked up to the batter’s box.
Sanchez definitely accomplished her goal as she ended her UCR career inside the top-10 in program history for games played, hits, home runs, doubles, RBI, batting average, slugging and on base percentage. She also ranks first all-time in home runs and total RBI with 26, and 116 respectively.
Sanchez concluded her speech by thanking her family, coaches and teammates saying, “I learned through coaching and playing that bonds made with teammates, and coaches are what matter the most. I was their cheerleader as they were mine. Just like my family and coaches were, and I can’t thank you all enough.”
Fred Morawczski was the fourth to step up onto the stage and give his acceptance speech. Morawczski’s acceptance speech was sprinkled with humor and anecdotes from his football career. Morawczski set the tone for his speech by sharing that he came to the induction ceremony from Northern California and never thought he’d actually be enjoying the “fresh air” in Riverside, which gave the audience their first of many big laughs throughout his speech.
Morawczski started his football career playing at Weber State University before moving back to Barstow, CA after the passing of his mother. He tried to play football at the local community college but was ruled ineligible due to having played two years at a four-year university. Morawczski was then recruited to UCR where he played from 1968-69 and set the program-record for most career rushing yards with 1,035, and the record for most rushing touchdowns in a game, with four. The former football standout closed his speech by thanking everyone in attendance for honoring him.
Last up to take the stage and give their acceptance speech was Jack Smitheran who managed UCR’s 1982 Baseball team and was giving the speech on behalf of the team. The 1982 baseball team was the last UCR sports team to win a NCAA championship. Smitheran was named Division II Coach of the Year that season for the second time in his career.
Smitheran started off his speech by saying the ‘82 season was a very special season. The team had lost seven players from the previous season to professional baseball contracts and graduation, which led to low expectations and a poor start on the diamond. “Quite honestly I was scared for my job,” Smitheran admitted. “We knew we were young, we knew we were inexperienced, but nonetheless you don’t like to lose.”
Smitheran shared a conversation he had with a parent that year that took place about 15 games into the season. The parent said to Smitheran, “Well Jack, there’s always next year,” to which he replied, “Well there won’t be a next year for me, because I’ll be fired.”
Soon after that conversation, the team started to turn things around and play at a higher level despite their lack of experience. Looking back on that year it’s almost comical to think about Smitheran being fired, but then again no one could predict what was about to take place. The Highlanders finished their season on fire, winning 19 of their final 23 games on the way to winning the Division II Championship.
The legacies of Cunningham, Sanchez, Finley, Morawczski and the 1982 baseball team as some of the best student-athletes to ever step foot on campus have now been immortalized as they were inducted into the Highlander Hall of Fame, and deservedly so.