Under new coach, talented West Mifflin girls team being challenged to work hard
West Mifflin's newest girls basketball coach has a message for his team: Don't be soft.
Scott Stephenson, the Titans' fourth boss in three seasons, was hoping to change what has been perceived as an underachieving culture at the once-proud program. West Mifflin, under legendary former coach Phil Shar, who is entering his first year as coach at nearby Thomas Jefferson, endured just one losing season in his 20 years on the West Mifflin bench before being dismissed following the 2010-11 season.
The Titans advanced to back-to-back WPIAL Class AAA championship games in 2007-08 and ‘08-09 under Shar but haven't been close since.
“We're challenging them to work hard,” said Stephenson, the former Community College of Allegheny County South Campus men's coach who also has served as a junior varsity and middle school coach at the boys level but has no experience in coaching the women's game.
“We're maybe as talented a team as there is in Class AAA,” he said. “But you can have all the talent in the world, and if you don't have a good work ethic, that talent is minimized.”
Stephenson, West Mifflin's athletics director since 2006, is being assisted by former Clairton boys and Duquesne girls coach Vaughn Pitts and former West Mifflin girls player Monica Poupakis.
“I'm a very competitive person, but I've never coached girls before,” Stephenson said. “So, when they don't respond the same way as boys, Monica tells me, ‘Coach, they're girls.'
“She can relate.”
Wright State recruit Ciara Patterson, the Daily News Player of the Year in 2012-13, leads an experienced team at West Mifflin, which qualified for the WPIAL playoffs after going 10-13 overall but 8-4 in Section 4-AAA.
When the Titans open the season Friday against Class AAAA McKeesport at the McKeesport Lady Tigers Tip-Off Tournament, the 5-foot-8 point guard is expected to be joined in the West Mifflin starting lineup by 5-11 senior forward Taylor Thomas, 5-6 senior guard Paige Flore, 5-5 junior guard Alyssa Cairns and 5-5 junior guard Jianha Flood-Francis.
Stephenson is counting on at least a later return of 5-11 senior Deilona DeVaughn, the team's starting center last season who's been slowed by back and ankle ailments.
“For now, we hope she can help us off the bench,” Stephenson said. “We've got big plans for her. She's a rebounding machine.”
Stephenson began the year by telling his players they needed to change their attitudes. Ten weeks later, he'd noticed some progress, calling the girls “very positive and focused.”
“We're getting in shape, but we're nowhere near where we need to be,” he said. “The sky's the limit for these girls; they're a very talented group, but it's a whole new thing for them. It's not their fault that we've had this coaching carousel.”
Shar, a member of the West Mifflin school board, was dismissed as girls coach in 2011 following an ongoing feud with the school district that ended in a conflict of interest over his appointment to the board.
He enters the 2013-14 season at Thomas Jefferson with 398 career victories.
Stephenson took over late at West Mifflin after former Baldwin and Brentwood coach Dan Thayer abruptly resigned in October, just five months after accepting the job.
Thayer's arrival followed a two-year coaching stint by Rob Yeschenko, who had succeeded Shar in time for the start of the 2011-12 season.
“They're fed up with the coaching changes,” Stephenson said of his team. “They're ready to get going. They want to win.”
Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.