West Mifflin's Stephenson named Daily News girls basketball coach of the year
After just one glorious season as girls basketball coach at West Mifflin, Scott Stephenson says he has no plans to leave the program anytime soon.
It was just that much fun for the guy who previously never coached the women's game.
“I love it. Unless they fire me or something, I'm in,” he said. “I enjoy it.”
Stephenson this season took a program mired in disarray but full of talented players and led West Mifflin into the PIAA playoffs for the first time in six years, earning him Daily News coach-of-the-year honors.
The Titans' 18-7 record represents the most victories in a season since the 2008-09 team went 20-8 and reached the PIAA Class AAA second round. West Mifflin ended its 2013-14 schedule with losses to Blackhawk in the WPIAL Class AAA semifinals and Erie Villa Maria Academy in the PIAA first round.
West Mifflin's record over the previous two seasons was a combined 20-23.
With Stephenson on board, the players tried to fight back at first, balking at the coaching staff's heavy-handed approach. Eventually, things came together.
“We went down to the track, instead of to the gym, and we worked them out every night for awhile until they were exhausted,” Stephenson said. “They didn't like it. They said it was boot camp, and we said, ‘Yes, it is. You're going to work or you're not going to play.' Once we got a work ethic instilled, we still had a lot of work do to.”
Stephenson's job was made easier with the presence of three main basketball elements, led by a trio of experienced seniors — Wright State recruit Ciara Patterson (point guard), Taylor Thomas (rebounding) and Paige Flore (defense).
“I single those three out, but I can't leave out the others,” he said. “Everyone on this team made major contributions — some gradually, some right away.”
Stephenson became West Mifflin's fourth coach in three years in October, just weeks before the start of the season. West Mifflin officials encouraged him to apply following the unexpected resignation of Scott Thayer, a former Brentwood and Baldwin coach, because Stephenson was the only candidate with previous head coaching experience.
Thayer, like Stephenson, a West Mifflin graduate, had been hired for the job following the 2012-13 season and had yet to coach a game for the Titans, when he abruptly resigned, citing philosophical differences with the school's administration.
Stephenson, 43, who also doubles as the school's athletics director and serves on the West Mifflin Borough Council, previously coached the Community College of Allegheny County South Campus men's team for two seasons before returning to his high school alma mater in 2006.
“I'm a busy guy, so I really didn't know if I could handle coaching the girls team,” he said. “But I was blessed with having very talented players and a great coaching staff. We couldn't have been successful without all of that.”
An emotional Stephenson didn't stop there.
“My wife Denise needs to be credited,” he said. “When they approached me about the job, I told her, ‘You're probably not going to like this.' She said, ‘What do you mean? What did you do?' I smiled a little and said, ‘Nothing.' But I couldn't even look her in the eye. I said, ‘It's just that I have this chance to coach the girls basketball team, but ...' She wouldn't let me finish. She just said, ‘Take it. You'll be fabulous. They'll respond to you.'
“That was it. I've got to give her the most credit for this. It's an honor anytime you win anything. We have kids, 14 and 10, and she didn't say anything about not being here for them. She let me do it and she didn't interfere, no matter what time of day or night we were practicing.”
Stephenson said assistants Vaughn Pitts, Monica Poupakis and Mike Kosko also were “fabulous.” Their experience in coaching and playing high school sports, he said, was invaluable to the team's chemistry.
“When we took them over, they hadn't worked out in four months,” Stephenson said of the players. “We were behind by that much on the day we started. They played in a summer league in the middle of June and they didn't come back until we got there. I'm thinking, ‘We might possibly be behind a whole year now.' That's when we looked at each other and said, ‘We've got to get these kids in shape before we put a ball in their hands.' ”
All the work paid off for Stephenson's crew.
“I have no regrets,” he said, “except, I would have liked to have won a few more games.”
Among West Mifflin's regular-season victories was a 57-48 decision against eventual PIAA Class AA champion Seton-La Salle on Feb. 10.
“We went into that game not knowing what would happen,” Stephenson said. “Playing a team that, at the time, was No. 1 in the state in Double-A with three Division I players, we came out flat and went down 13-2. But Patterson hit back-to-back 3s and Thomas took it to the hoop, and all of a sudden, we're back in the game. Our kids came over during a timeout, and I saw the look in their eyes. They said, ‘We can play with this team.'
“We played our butts off. They believed from that point. That was the game that put us over the top.”
Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.