Stefko relishing opportunity to coach Seton-La Salle basketball team
When Seton-La Salle athletic director John Ashaolu received a call from Spencer Stefko about the girls' basketball coaching vacancy just weeks after he resigned from Chartiers Valley, he didn't know what to think.
“I didn't know if it was for a friend or he was interested,” Ashaolu said. “I was excited to find it was for him.”
Stefko led Chartiers Valley for seven years, becoming the most successful girls' basketball coach in school history.
He compiled an overall record of 137-51; won four section championships in five years starting in 2008; appeared in three PIAA semifinals in the past four years; and just last year, led the Lady Colts to the WPIAL finals for the first time.
“Really good teams play like their coach,” Ashaolu said. “His teams at Chartiers Valley emulated his theory of coaching. He gets after it on the sideline and so does his team; they get after it on the court. It was a no-brainer.”
Ashaolu coached Seton-La Salle in a fill-in role last year after Dennis Squeglia abruptly resigned, guiding the Lady Rebels to the WPIAL Class AA championship game.
Ashaolu resigned following the season. During his short time as coach, Ashaolu developed a relationship with Stefko after scrimmaging his Chartiers Valley squad early in the year.
As the season progressed, both teams followed similar paths, including WPIAL championship and PIAA semifinals losses.
“I knew what he was feeling like,” Stefko said of Ashaolu's championship-game loss. “I sent him a text saying, ‘Keep your head up. State playoffs are coming around.' He said, ‘I was going to say the same thing.' We went through similar seasons in a way.”
Stefko, a Vincentian High School, Notre Dame (undergraduate) and Duquesne (graduate) alumnus, will remain a teacher at Chartiers Valley, but is excited to be coaching at a Catholic school where there will be a familiar atmosphere.
“The fact that I have been here before, too,” Stefko, who served as an assistant at Seton-La Salle during the 2001-02 season, said. “There's just a unique feel. That's just a neat thing,”
Described as a players' coach by his peers, Stefko couldn't imagine a better coaching opportunity after leaving what he described as a “dream job” at Chartiers Valley.
And working with a young athletic director like Ashaolu, who is former a Division I basketball player and coach, makes the transition all the more manageable.
“It's less likely you're going to find yourself second-guessed by him,” Stefko said. “It's more likely that you're going to find support, especially a guy that just coached at the school.”
Seton-La Salle is perennially one of the strongest programs in Class AA, making it to the WPIAL final five years in a row, and winning back-to-back WPIAL titles in 2011 and 2012 — including a perfect 30-0 record and PIAA championship in 2012.
Expectations always are high, but for both Ashaolu and Stefko it's too early to speculate how next year might end.
“I want him to get his feet wet and have everyone in the gym before we start talking expectations,” said Ashaolu, who is entering his third year as athletic director.
Stefko was able to ‘coach' the team in four summer league games, but hasn't held an open-gym practice yet.
“You can't really coach at that point; you're just sitting their evaluating,” Stefko said of his time so far on the Seton-La Salle bench. “It's a weird dynamic.”
Whatever lies ahead for Stefko, though, will be met with his usual calm outlook, adapting to the current coaching situation and focusing on smaller, short-term objectives en route to the biggest goal: a championship.
“The only expectation I have right now is just that we're playing our best ball come February,” Stefko said. “Talking to the kids, their ultimate goal is to be playing their best by February.”
Justin Criado is a freelance writer.