1st-year hoops coaches guide teams to playoffs
And to think Jon McKay almost didn't get this job.
McKay was a last-second hire by the Deer Lakes School Board in October, taking the boys basketball reins from Joe Lewandowski, who resigned to tend to family matters.
McKay was Lewandowski's assistant but, up until the night he was hired, was under the impression the board had someone else in mind for the position.
Instead, with the support of a small band of players and other supporters, McKay was hired to lead the Lancers.
McKay at the time said the development was “like something out of a movie.”
So have been the months that followed. The script has written itself.
After a slow start, Deer Lakes (16-6) has rolled to a share of its first section title since 1992 and enters next week's WPIAL playoffs with nine wins in its final 10 games.
That's a lot to ask of any coach, let alone one in his first season.
“It has been tremendously fun; it's been a special season,” McKay said. “It sounds cliche, but it's everyone else, not just me, that has made it special. We have a great group of seniors. They work hard and understand the game. And we have great community support.”
McKay is one of three local coaches who have led their teams to the WPIAL playoffs in their debut seasons, joining Knoch boys coach Ron McNabb and Freeport girls coach Paul Sylba.
It's almost an insult to call McNabb and Sylba rookie coaches.
McNabb has been a head coach at Valley and Burrell. He also led Valley to the playoffs in his first season, in 1985.
“We never mentioned wins and losses,” McNabb said. “We wanted to work really hard and get a little bit better every single day.
“Usually if you work hard, the winning will take care of itself. It's a great tribute to my coaches and players that we we're able to get to the playoffs.”
Sylba was head coach at Riverview for nine seasons, and also guided the Lady Raiders to the postseason right away, in 2000, when they went from Class A to AA.
Knoch (11-10) finished in fourth place in Section 1-AAA to grab the final playoff berth. The Knights have managed to stay with just about every team on the schedule, even sending a scare into perennial contender and then-No. 1 ranked Chartiers Valley before falling late, 65-51.
Knoch led by a point at halftime and trailed by three heading into the fourth quarter.
McNabb said the team's turning point came around the holidays.
“We struggled early in the year with a tough schedule, and it toughened these guys up,” McNabb said. “Over Christmas, for some reason, we had great practices and we did well at the Freeport Tournament. So I think that's when we saw the hard work was paying off.”
Freeport (8-12) was bumped-up to Class AAA this season, but the Yellowjackets found a comfort zone early and managed to tie Kittanning for third place in Section 1. Injuries have slowed the team some, but the roster appears re-charged for the playoffs.
Senior 6-foot forward Jessica Aulicino has been in and out of the lineup with concussion-like symptoms.
“When Jess got hurt, some younger kids rose to the occasion,” Sylba said. “That gave Macy (Smolic) and Zoe (Soilis) a lot of confidence. (Michaela) Bowser also was out a couple of games, too.
“It's good to be healthy now. We're looking forward to the ride.”
McKay still talks frequently with Lewandowski, even picking his brain for game advice.
Lewandowski also had a hand in the program turning a corner. Deer Lakes had a 4-18 record each of the past two seasons after making the playoffs in 2010.
The Lancers have an eight-senior core group — call them their “Eight Men Out” — that has found a unique and effective chemistry.
“I feel like (the transition from assistant to head coach) has been as seamless as possible,” McKay said. “Having eight seniors has certainly made it easier. They were willing to accept me as a head coach, not just someone who fell into the job.”
Now comes the hard part for the first-year coaches: winning a playoff game. Deer Lakes hasn't done that since 1985.
“That's motivation,” McKay said.
Freeport's last playoff win came in 2004. Knoch's was in 2006.
McNabb thinks Knoch could improve its seeding with a win over Class AAAA Plum on Monday in its regular-season finale.
McNabb was an assistant to Plum head coach Ron Richards the past two seasons.
Bill Beckner Jr. is the Local Sports Editor of the Valley News Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.