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Presto makes immediate impact from bench

| Monday, Feb. 13, 2012

Nikki Presto was named the 2006 Daily News Player of the Year at Thomas Jefferson and spent four years on the Slippery Rock women's basketball team, but the former point guard never envisioned herself as a coach.

"I remember my senior year of college, I would just cry at my locker after games and say, ‘What am I going to be doing at this time next year• I'm not going to have anything to do with basketball,' " Presto recalled.

"And then, go figure. Nothing has changed."

Nothing has changed because pretty much everything changed last May, when Presto became the girls basketball coach at Keystone Oaks High School in Dormont, only one year after reluctantly dipping her toes into the coaching pool.

"People always assumed that I wanted to become a coach, but honestly, it just fell into my lap," Presto said. "At first I thought, ‘Ah, this will keep me busy.' Then I really liked it."

Take a look at what Keystone Oaks has done this season, and it's easy to understand why: The Golden Eagles finished the regular season at 16-6 overall and 7-5 in Section 5-AA, good enough to force a tie for third place and earn a playoff berth when postseason brackets are released tomorrow night.

"Honestly, you would have never guessed that this is her first year coaching," senior guard Alexis Xenakis said. "I'm not just saying this to make her sound good, but she's the best coach I've ever had."

Presto averaged 20 points, five rebounds, five assists and five steals per game as a senior at TJ and scored more than 1,000 points during her career. She led the team to Section 5-AAA titles during her junior and senior seasons, earning all-section accolades both years.

At Slippery Rock, Presto started 82 games, averaging eight points and three assists per game, the latter number ranking No. 9 all-time at the school.

Not only was she a frequent presence — she played 2,418 minutes in those four years, eighth all-time at Slippery Rock —but she was also a feisty point guard, the quintessential floor general.

"From freshman year through graduation, every drill at every practice was one speed, and that was all she could give," said former Slippery Rock women's basketball coach Laurel Heilman, who was in the stands when Keystone Oaks beat Slippery Rock High School, 67-62, on Dec. 28.

"I haven't been to her practices, but I have to think that she's carried that over to her team," Heilman added. "Watching them, they were very disciplined; they knew each others' roles and knew that on the offensive end, if it wasn't going well, their defense was going to keep them in the game."

A health/physical education teacher, Presto did her student teaching in Raleigh, N.C. during the summer of 2010 and only got interested in coaching after moving home and attending one of her younger brother Dom's football games that fall.

That conversation led Presto to apply to become the JV girls basketball coach, and she spent one season working under Jamie Polak, the current TJ girls coach. A year later, Presto got her own team.

"It's different when you coach because you can tell them every single thing to do • that doesn't mean they're going to do it," said Presto, who's working as a permanent substitute at Harrison Middle School in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District. "That can be a frustrating thing, but it still came a little bit more natural than I thought."

Still only 23 years old, Presto, by her own admission, might be more commonly mistaken for one of her players' older sisters than their coach. But that doesn't bother Presto, especially not when she's leading her team to playoffs as a rookie.

"She's a really good coach," Keystone Oaks senior Taylor Brownlee said. "She has taught us a lot, and she's never negative. I also think she understands us more because she was where we're at not too long ago. It's definitely been a good experience."

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