Coaching carousel spins for Kiski Area, Highlands, Springdale in A-K Valley
Shortly after taking over as Highlands' new football coach in April, Dom Girardi informed his new players of a bond they shared from their football pasts.
Girardi, a Valley graduate, grew up watching Sam Albert patrol the Vikings' sidelines from 1991-93. His players witnessed Albert lead Highlands from 2004 through the end of last season, after which he took the coaching job at Kiski Area.
"It's kind of a unique thing there," said Girardi, who becomes Highlands' first new coach in 14 seasons. "I have a ton of respect for coach A. I was fortunate enough to coach against him a couple times, and you know you've got to be very prepared. It was nice taking over a good program, and I'm looking forward to building on it."
The coaching carousel spun in the Alle-Kiski Valley in the offseason, just as it did across the WPIAL, or the NCAA, or the NFL. When the music stopped, three schools had new coaches at the helm: Albert at Kiski Area, Girardi at Highlands and Seth Napierkowski at Springdale.
Albert is making his fifth coaching stop, while Girardi and Napierkowski are first-time head coaches. All three face the same challenges: meeting a new group of players, installing a system and creating a culture. Their success in those areas ultimately will determine their legacy.
It's not an easy job.
"Boy, I wish (it got easier), but no, it really doesn't," Albert said. "My wife said to me the other day, 'I don't think you've learned anything from the other four schools.' "
Added Napierkowski: "It's nice (to be an assistant) because you can just brush it off to the side and you go home whenever anyone has any questions. But now you have to be the one who answers the questions."
'It's a big thrill'
Albert doesn't yet have a Kiski Area equivalent to the hat with Ram horns he wore at Highlands, or the Viking helmet he sported at Valley.
But he's already doling out his trademark nicknames: "Hollywood" for Ross Greece, "Munchy" for Troy Kuhn and "Bravo" for Dane Fitzsimmons, among several others.
"It's a process," Albert said. "Everywhere I've ever been, you start over. The nice thing is it's fresh. Everything you say is new to the kids, and they're excited about it. And I'm excited about it. It's a great time to be the head coach: We haven't lost a game, and everybody's son is starting. So it's a good time."
Albert grew up in Vandergrift and graduated from Apollo-Ridge, admiring the perennial success of Dick Dilts' football program at Kiski Area. The Cavaliers won the 1971 WPIAL championship and dominated their conference, winning 45 straight games from 1967-73.
More than just the on-field success, Albert appreciated the way Dilts was ahead of his time when it came to areas of program-building like strength and conditioning.
He now steps into Dilts' shoes and hopes to have the same amount of success. After 23 years as a head coach, including stops at Valley, Butler, Freeport and Highlands, Albert is coming home.
"When I was growing up, Coach Dilts was the epitome of what a high school program should look like," Albert said. "They were light years ahead of everybody. The way they came off the ball, everything about the program. So it's a big thrill for me to be on the same field at the same school Coach Dilts was a coach at."
Kiski Area went 4-6 last season, and its recent success doesn't match its heyday. The Cavaliers last won a WPIAL playoff game in 1990, going 0-8 in the postseason since.
Albert, who holds a career record of 133-100-1, is bringing an intensity to his new stop.
"He's always running around, yelling, screaming, in a good positive way," senior lineman Kadin Harden said. "That's always good to have around. He keeps everything fun. (It's a) good environment, so that's always a good thing to have around."
Albert said he treats his players like his three kids. He's focusing on building a bond before the season begins.
"We're going to have ups and downs, we're going to have great times and we're going to be down at times," he said. "That all builds character and brings you closer together as a family. I yell at my sons, and my expectations for all three of my sons are very high. So I won't reduce those: I'll keep those up there, and I'm going to yell at you and push you, but we'll come closer in that process."
'A first-class program'
Holidays at Girardi's house feature a different party game. Instead of post-dinner charades, Highlands' new coach and several of his family members gather around a whiteboard.
"Most of the time after dinner (we) go over different plays or things we picked up from different places," Girardi said. "That's the standard."
Coaching is the family business. Girardi's father, Frank, is coaching the Golden Rams' offensive and defensive lines; his brother, David, is quarterbacks coach at Lafayette College; his uncle is a high school and college coaching veteran; and his cousin is a volunteer assistant at Highlands.
A former quarterback at Valley, Girardi played at Duquesne and Jacksonville before becoming an assistant at Deer Lakes, Knoch and Geneva. He knew he wanted to become a coach "before I even took the helmet off."
"There's always been football talk around the dinner table and holidays," he said. "I've always as a player enjoyed the X's and O's and the schematic part of things."
Although he played and coached against Highlands, Girardi didn't know his players before taking over as Golden Rams coach. The late date of his hire — the end of April — made establishing a relationship even more important.
He met with his players shortly after getting hired, and the on-field workouts began not long after.
"It's kind of a whole new fresh start," senior Logan Crise said. "There's nothing to worry about. It's just nice to have a fresh start sometimes. He's a great guy. He makes sure we're all behaving, we're all communicating well. He has very strict values that we follow and that we're starting to get used to. I think it's great for football, but better for us as people, as well."
Girardi said he watched and learned from the coaches he worked for — Denny Fedigan at Deer Lakes, Mike King at Knoch and Geno DeMarco at Geneva — and he still talks to them.
He inherits a Highlands team that missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 2012.
"The biggest thing that I want to do is make sure we have a first-class program in all aspects," Girardi said. "Some people when they think of success, they equate that to wins or they equate that to playoffs. Yeah, I'm a competitive guy. I want to win football games. I want to go to the playoffs. But there are other things that are equally important: the attitude of the kids, the work ethic that you instill in them that they take into the classroom, into their home, into their work.
"To me, success is having a program where the kids are being fully developed, not just on the field but other areas of their life, as well."
'I'm ready to go'
As a young ball boy on Burrell's sidelines, Napierkowski approached longtime Bucs coach Tom Henderson during an exhibition game against Belle Vernon.
"(He) tugs on his jacket and says, 'Coach, it'd be a good time to call a timeout and settle everyone down,' " said Rich Napierkowski, Seth's father. "He denies it, but Henderson said it happened, and I've got to believe him."
Seth Napierkowski, a former star quarterback and baseball player at Burrell who played football at Carnegie Mellon, also had coaching in his blood. Rich coached for more than 30 years at Burrell and the last three at Springdale.
Seth was an assistant at Springdale the past two years before getting hired in May. He replaced Dave Leasure, who led the Dynamos to four playoff trips in five years after taking over for the legendary Chuck Wagner.
"It's really an honor," Napierkowski said. "Both coach Wagner and coach Leasure did a great job here, and I'm just trying to not screw it up too much here. I just look forward to taking the things I've learned from them and learned from other experiences in my life and making these kids and this team the best it can possibly be."
Napierkowski, who considers his father and Carnegie Mellon's Rich Lackner coaching role models, worked with quarterback Sammy Carey last season, helping Carey post one of the most prolific passing seasons in Springdale history.
"I think Springdale got lucky with him, I really do," Rich Napierkowski said. "Not because he's my son but because he knows a lot of football."
Because he already knew his players from his time as an assistant, Napierkowski had a leg up in building a relationship.
"(It's important to know) just how to interact with the kids and understand not every kid's the same," he said. "You have to understand who can be yelled at and who can't be yelled at, who you maybe have to take aside and talk to and who's going to pick things up, who's going to need a few extra reps before they get it. I've had a lot of coaches who have done a great job with that in high school and college."
His youth — he graduated from Burrell in 2008 — also helps.
"He understands the way the game is played a little bit better nowadays," senior Josh Harmon said. "We (also) know when we can mess around, and we know when we can't. We know when we've got to get down to it. It's a good relationship."
Napierkowski's coaching debut will come in Week Zero at Burrell, his alma mater.
"I know that they're ready to go, I know I'm ready to go, I know my coaches are ready to go," he said. "It's going to be really exciting here."
Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.