New class of Hall of Fame inductees announced

The Fairfield County Sports Hall of Fame has announced its new class of inductees, naming six prominent sports figures into its three wings.

The Hall of Fame, which is overseen by the Fairfield County Sports Commission, Inc., will honor the newly elected Hall of Famers with an induction ceremony at the Commission’s 8th annual Sports Night awards dinner, Monday, Oct. 15 at the Hyatt Regency Greenwich.

With the six new inductees, the Hall of Fame has now recognized 52 county sports legends.

Two Hall of Famers were selected in each of the three HOF Wings: Jackie Robinson

Professional, James O’Rourke Amateur and J. Walter Kennedy Community Service.

In the professional category, the new inductees are Wes Matthews (Bridgeport) and Sue Merz (Greenwich).

The amateur wing selections are Ed Finnegan (Stratford) and Harold Jensen (Trumbull).

Community service winners are the late Jim Penders Sr. (Stratford) and Dave Strong (Monroe).

With the naming of Jim Penders Sr., he joins his son Tom to become the first father/son tandem in the FC Sports HOF. Tom was inducted in 2008.

Matthews played nine seasons in the NBA, earning two championship rings with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1987 and ‘88.

He was the first round draft pick of the Washington Bullets in 1980, the 14th selection overall. His rookie season produced a career-high 12.4 points per game and 5.2 assists, split between Washington and Atlanta.

The speedy, 6-1 guard also played for the Philadelphia 76ers, Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs, where he had a career-high 6.3 assists per game in 1985-86, before concluding his NBA career in 1988 with a 7.9 points per game average.

The Harding High great also played professionally overseas for several years.

Matthews was a standout at the University of Wisconsin, averaging 18 points per game in three seasons there. His son Wesley Jr. plays in the NBA for the Portland Trail Blazers.

Matthews coached the Jersey G-Force in the International Basketball League last season.

Merz was a member of the U.S. Women’s National Hockey Team for 13 years from 1990-2002.

She was a defenseman on the U.S.’s gold-medal winning team in 1998 and also won a silver medal in the 2002 Olympics.

In the ‘98 event she scored a goal and five assists in helping the U.S. to its first and only Olympic gold.

The Greenwich High graduate has six World Championships’ silver medals to go along with her Olympic awards.

Along with her teammates, the 1998 team was voted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 2009.

Merz played college hockey at the University of New Hampshire (1990-94) and also played overseas in Switzerland.

She was a member of the Connecticut Polar Bears team that won the 1990 USA Hockey Girls’ Midget National Championship.

Finnegan is one the most decorated and greatest softball players of not only the county, but the state and nation as well.

His 50-year career continues as the 70-year-old is still active in playing around the country at the highest levels of competition in senior softball.

Finnegan led Stratford High to the 1959 state baseball championship-playing for coach and fellow 2012 FC Hall of Famer Jim Penders Sr. — by turning in a herculean effort that saw him pitch four games and 39 innings in a week’s span.

After a couple of major league tryouts and two years of a varsity baseball scholarship at the University of Bridgeport, he turned his efforts toward slow pitch softball and began one of the most illustrious careers in the sports’ history.

In 1962, he started at shortstop with the Avco Lycoming team and went on to lead Avco to multiple national championships as well as earning five national MVP awards, the first in 1968, the last in 1990.

Finnegan also played nationally with County Sports of Long Island and had a two-year stint (1978-79) in the American Professional Softball League.

He continued past his 50th birthday to play with his current team the New York Statesmen, winning seven more national titles and five additional MVPs.

He was elected to the Connecticut and National Softball HOFs in 1993 and the Senior Softball Hall of Fame in 2003.

Jensen’s basketball career is sometimes defined by one game on the national stage, but it was much more than that.

From 1981-83 he led Trumbull High to a pair of FCIAC championships, was a two-time Class LL all-stater, and became the school’s all-time leading scorer with 1,375 points.

He moved on to Villanova University and as a sophomore in 1985 played the “perfect game” in leading the Wildcats to an upset victory of Georgetown for the NCAA national title.

As a key reserve, he scored 14 points in that game, shooting 5-for-5 from the floor and went 4-for-4 to help clinch the game at the free throw line, earning a spot on the all-tournament team.

He was a two-year starter, All-Big East second-team selection as a senior and a two-time first-team Academic All-American, concluding his career with 1,155 points.

Drafted in the sixth round of the 1987 NBA draft by Cleveland, Jensen continues to live in Philadelphia and is a member of the Villanova Athletics and Big Five Hall of Fames.

Penders was a four-sport coach at Stratford High, but was best known for his highly successful baseball program that he led for 23 years.

He retired in 1968 with 282 wins and four state titles, including his final season, and never had a losing record.

He was also the longtime track coach at the school from 1932-45 and his team lost only two dual meets during that time.

After retiring from coaching, Penders served as Stratford’s athletic director and then became a fixture in the town’s recreation department.

He was one of the county’s top football officials for nearly 30 years and a premier basketball referee for over 25 years.

Penders is a member of both the National High School Coaches Association and Connecticut High School Coaches Hall of Fames.

His family coaching tree is one of the nation’s most remarkable.

The patriarch joins his son Tom, one of college’s basketball’s all-time great coaches, in the FC Sports Hall of Fame.

His son Jim, also a member of the National High School Coaches HOF, just retired after a legendary, 40-plus years’ baseball coaching career at East Catholic High School.

His grandson Jim is the head baseball coach at the University of Connecticut.

A complex of sports fields at Stratford’s Longbrook Park is named for Penders.

Strong coached six different sports at Masuk High, but his strong suit was girls’ basketball and no one in the state of Connecticut ever did it better.

He retired last year after 35 years as head coach with a state record 704 victories and an .819 winning percentage.

His teams made the state tournament every year since the program started in 1974, won three state titles, 19 league championships, had two undefeated seasons, and a 93-game regular season win streak.

As one of the deans of state girls basketball, and with that kind of successful track record, he has been recognized for his accomplishments at all levels.

He is enshrined in the Connecticut High School Coaches Hall of Fame (2000), New England Basketball Hall of Fame (2002), CT Women’s Basketball HOF (2004) and inducted to the National High School Coaches HOF in 2009.

During his long tenure at Masuk, Strong also coached boys basketball, boys’ and girls’ tennis, softball and cross country.

With the addition of Matthews, Bridgeport now has the most inductees with 10. A total of 15 towns are represented in the Hall of Fame.

The Fairfield County Sports Hall of Fame is housed at the University of Connecticut Stamford Campus in downtown Stamford. The Hall of Fame is open six days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The Fairfield County Sports Commission, Inc. is a 501c (3) non-profit organization that promotes fitness, an active healthy lifestyle and personal development through sports.

The Commission, other than the executive director position, is an all-volunteer group dedicated to creating and supporting programs for fitness awareness education, primarily centered on the 110,000 school age children in the 15 communities it serves.

It’s newly created Chelsea Cohen Fitness Academy is the countywide umbrella for all of its programs.

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