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With Wilkinsburg leadership, Westinghouse boys hoops finds harmony

| Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, 3:48 p.m.

Last summer, the Wilkinsburg School District closed its middle and high schools after 105 years of service. Westinghouse High School took on the challenge of educating and supporting Wilkinsburg's former students — a challenge that extended to the basketball court, where the boys team scuffled to the tune of a 1-15 record during the 2015-16 season.

When the Bulldogs sought a new head coach for the 2016-17 campaign, they didn't have to look far the find the ideal candidate: Eugene Wilson. A star player for Wilkinsburg in the 1990s and a 1,000-plus point scorer at Pitt-Johnstown, Wilson served as the boys coach at Wilkinsburg the past three seasons. During the school's final year, he led the team to a 16-8 record and a WPIAL playoff appearance.

Switching schools and blending two rosters provided challenges, but the Bulldogs thrived. Westinghouse finished the year with a 12-8 record during the regular season, including a 6-4 mark against City League competition. They earned a playoff spot but fell just short in a first-round matchup with Allderdice, 43-40, on Wednesday.

“The transition (from Wilkinsburg to Westinghouse) was pretty easy,” Wilson said. “A lot of the Westinghouse kids already knew me and my players from summer league and AAU games. The familiarity made everything easier.”

The Wilkinsburg standouts who joined Wilson at Westinghouse included a trio of seniors: point guard Koran Fleming, guard/forward Genaro Coleman and forward Dominique Aime. Those three were inserted into the starting lineup with Bulldogs holdovers Allen Barr, a senior guard/forward, and 6-foot-10 junior center James Ellis.

“First and foremost, I give credit to the Westinghouse players,” Wilson said. “They welcomed everyone with open arms, including myself and my assistant coach, Jay Latimer. It starts with the players; if they don't buy in, believe, and trust you, there is no program. There's no playoffs.

“We wanted to instill a culture of discipline and structure to help these young men understand the opportunities they have in life,” said Wilson, who also serves as director of community and resident services for Neighborhood Partners. “It's bigger than just basketball.”

The Bulldogs' leading scorer this year was Fleming, at around 14 points per game. Wilson called him the best player he has coached, and noted how he soldiered through a partially torn meniscus during his senior year. Aime — whom Wilson jokingly referred to as grandpa for his mature, professional demeanor — and Coleman also know the ins and outs of the system. Barr has stepped up as a leader, and Ellis has flashed serious talent.

“James needs to understand that he can be a dominant force out there,” Wilson said. “We talk about the window of potential, and how it can get smaller. He has a desire to play at the next level, and we want to get him there. He's coming around and starting to understand what that will take.”

While Allderdice got the better of them in the playoffs, Westinghouse managed to slay the Dragons earlier in the season. Westinghouse's 57-40 triumph at home on Jan. 25 ended a three-year, 33-game City League winning streak for Allderdice — a streak that began with a victory over the Bulldogs.

“We want to bring excitement back to the City League, and to Westinghouse,” Wilson said. “This job isn't easy, and it isn't for everyone. But I've seen the mental strength, commitment and work ethic from these young men. And we've received tremendous support from this group of parents. We're sharing their children, and want to send them off with great experiences. We're all Bulldogs now.”

David Golebiewski is a freelance writer.

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