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Local basketball coaches renew friendships, rivalries

| Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012, 12:21 a.m.
Ronald Vezzani Jr.| For the Daily News Coach Vern Benson talks with senior point guard Jordan Williams.
Erica Hilliard | Valley News Dispatch Valley High School's boys head basketball coach Phil Cope instructs his players during the basketball scrimmage against Springdale at Valley High School on Friday November 30, 2012.
Valley News Dispatch
Leechburg boys head coach, Damian Davies instructs players during practice at Leechburg High School Wednesday November 28, 2012. Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch

Vern Benson and Wayne Greiser coached boys basketball together for three years at Valley — Benson as the head coach and Greiser as his assistant and right-hand man.

The two have remained friends despite taking their coaching careers in different directions. They've gone to Pitt games together. Benson attended Greiser's wedding and he was one of the first to congratulate Greiser on the birth of his daughter last week.

“I'm an uncle again,” Benson said with a laugh.

Benson is the head coach at East Allegheny, while Greiser holds the same position at Yough. Twice this season, the coaches and friends will reunite on the court in nonsection play — and throw all of their happy memories under the bench like an old warm-up shirt.

“Like we've said to each other,” Benson said. “He wants me to win all of my games, and I want him to win all of his games — except two.”

Benson and Greiser aren't alone.

Numerous Alle-Kiski basketball coaches have a history, and many relationships that were forged through coaching will serve as storylines for several games this season.

In many cases, former assistants will face their mentors.

Let the ribbing and trash-talking begin. It's the season of coaching reunions.

Benson, a Valley grad, took the first meeting, 74-41. Greiser, from Freeport, will look to get his revenge on Jan. 24 in Herminie.

“We're friends off the court, but for 32 minutes all you're thinking about is getting the win,” Greiser said. “I learned some things from him. Some of the play calls we make will probably be the same.”

Very likely, Benson said.

“Some of them, for sure,” Benson said. “Like ‘Jacket,' which I stole from Wayne. He got that from when he coached at Freeport. And ‘22,' a trap defense he got from me.”

Ron McNabb and Phil Cope coached together at Burrell before both went their separate ways. These days, McNabb guides the Knoch boys and Cope coaches at Valley. The Section 1-AAA foes will play twice this season.

“I appreciated my time with him,” said Cope, who coaches his alma mater. “I'm sure we'll have some close, hard-fought games. It will come down to who puts their kids in the best position to succeed.”

A pair of defensive-minded coaches, McNabb and Cope may apply different offensive schemes against one another. Knoch is a half-court team and relies on a post game. Valley likes to get out and run.

“It will come down to us wanting to kick their butts, and they hope to kick ours,” McNabb said. “It's always nice when your assistant gets a head-coaching job.”

McNabb's nephew, sophomore Mike McNabb, sees playing time for Valley.

“It puts my parents in a tough position,” coach McNabb said. “They don't know who to root for.”

McNabb, a Valley grad, joked he can get a scouting report from Mike, who also is his godchild.

McNabb also will coach against Plum's Ron Richards in a non-section game Jan. 23 in Saxonburg. McNabb was Richards' assistant for the last two seasons.

“Ron is one of my best friends,” McNabb said. “It will be a challenge to coach against him, and (assistant) Eric Gillis. We've already been talking about that game.”

McNabb and Richards are known for being animated on the sidelines. McNabb said that doesn't carry over to halftime speeches, contrary to what people might think.

And it won't happen, he said, even if he is losing to Richards.

“(Richards) always made adjustments; he didn't get in kids' faces,” McNabb said. “People think we going to tear off lockers.”

Leechburg's Damian Davies grew up across the street from Brian Brenneman in Buffalo Township and played basketball with him at Freeport. Now the boys head coach at Winchester Thurston, Brenneman will lead his team against Davies and his Blue Devils twice in Section 4-A play. The first meeting is Jan. 4 at Winchester Thurston.

“We've been neighbors. We've known each other since the third grade,” said Brenneman, a Gilpin resident. “(At Freeport), he was a senior when I was a sophomore. It's always exciting to go against Damian. There's a little history there. When I was a (junior varsity) coach at Shady Side Academy, he was the JV coach at Burrell. He has me by a little, like 6 to 4.”

Other local coaching connections:

• Freeport girls coach Paul Sylba could face Riverview, his former team, in the finals of the Riverview holiday tournament.

• Freeport boys coach Mike Beale will go against Ford City coach Greg Hutcherson twice — once in the Freeport holiday tournament and later in non-section play. In the offseason, Hutcherson is an AAU coach and Beale is his assistant.

• Springdale boys coach Seth Thompson will face his former Deer Lakes team in the Deer Lakes holiday tournament.

• Former Springdale, St. Joseph and Burrell coach Ken “Butch” Lessig led his Northgate girls against Springdale and his mentor, Dan Ross, on Saturday.

• It wasn't a reunion of coaches, but rather a reunion of a coach and program. Former Highlands boys coach Mike Nagy coached against Highlands last week, guiding his West Shamokin Wolves to a 58-50 victory in overtime.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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