Plum assistant Gillis hired as girls basketball coach

| Tuesday, June 3, 2014, 9:51 p.m.

Eric Gillis knew he wanted to be a basketball coach, he just wasn't sure when or where. But then the Plum girls varsity position opened, and so did his eyes.

The hometown opportunity was there for the taking, and it was too good to pass up.

“I figured I would give it a shot and try to take it to the next step,” Gillis said. “It's time for me to test the waters and see what I am able to do on my own.”

The opportunity also means Gillis has another chance to represent the purple and gold.

“I went to Plum. I am a Plum guy,” he said. “I wanted to do something to be a part of the community, versus going somewhere else. I want the best for Plum.”

Gillis, a 29-year-old coach hired last week to fill a position left vacant by the end-of-season resignation of Bernie Pucka, has been an assistant with the Plum boys under Ron Richards for the past five years.

Although the Plum math teacher is starting his first head coaching job, it won't be his first time coaching girls. He was an assistant for one season at Fox Chapel in 2009 when the Lady Foxes finished as the WPIAL runner-up in Class AAAA.

Plum loses a talented group of seven seniors who never missed the playoffs, but they also never won a playoff game.

Pucka went 84-76 in seven seasons and made the playoffs five straight times but couldn't get out of the first round.

Gillis said he hopes to keep the postseason streak intact but wants wins to accompany the appearances.

Plum will build around 6-foot-4 center Courtney Zezza, who will be a senior.

“We have some talent returning,” Gillis said. “There were a couple of sophomore guards who saw time also.”

Richards was a mentor for Gillis, a former Plum guard who played two seasons at Pitt-Johnstown.

“It was a great learning experience with Ron,” Gillis said. “I'll take a lot away from him. The thing about him is that he gets the most out of his kids. He finds a way to win basketball games. He wins games some people wouldn't imagine him winning.”

A firey head coach who had demanded the respect of opponents for years, Richards believes the girls team can't go wrong with Gillis, who is slightly less intense than his mentor.

“He's very organized and passionate about basketball,” Richards said. “He will do a great job and our girls are lucky to have him as their head coach.”

Gillis did behind-the-scenes work for Plum's boys team. He scouted opponents and broke down game films, and he said he had more control in running practices, which should help his transition.

“I gained a lot from that,” he said.

Plum has a reputation for being one of the top defensive boys teams in Quad A. Gillis wouldn't mind shifting that trend to the girls' side.

“It's always going to come down to competing and the effort the girls out (with),” Gillis said. “But it surely will start on the defensive end.

“I think girls there is just as much, if not more, competitiveness in girls. I think girls have the same drive and instincts to win.”

Plum plays girls-boys doubleheaders during the season Tuesdays and Fridays, so Gillis said he never was able to sit and watch the Plum girls play full games. But he's aware of the team's recent playoff history and its glaring string of bad luck against Penn-Trafford.

Plum has lost six straight games to Penn-Trafford since 2008, including two consecutive first-round defeats.

“We'll try to change things,” Gillis said. “We open against (Penn-Trafford) in their tip-off tournament.”

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