East Allegheny boys, girls face uphill climbs
East Allegheny boys basketball coach Vern Benson knows a thing or two about rebuilding struggling programs.
When he took over as Valley coach in 2001, he inherited a team that had won three games the previous year. By his third season, the Vikings were back in the playoffs.
Now, he's trying to replicate that feat with the Wildcats.
“What you first have to change is the culture, and that's sometimes the hardest thing to change,” said Benson, now in his second year at East Allegheny. “It may take three years. It took me two years at Valley, and I'm going to follow the same blueprint here. I know what it takes, and I don't deviate from my beliefs. I think it's going to happen.”
Benson's first year at East Allegheny wasn't as rough as his first with Valley — the Vikings went 0-24 in 2001-02 — but it had its share of down moments. The Wildcats finished 5-16 and tied for last place in Section 4-AAA with a 1-11 conference record.
East Allegheny began last season with 20-plus players but finished the year with 10.
“I think what happened was guys didn't want to commit,” Benson said. “They were used to the old bad habits they'd developed throughout the years in this program. It wasn't the same. We ended up with 10 committed guys.”
Those 10 players are back this season, supplemented by an additional 12 players. Benson believes he has found the commitment he's looking for.
As the Wildcats look for their first playoff appearance since 1996 and first section title since 1967, they will rely on a senior class of eight players, anchored by Shawn Adair, Josh Jenkins, Malik Pope, Joel Randolph and Jordan Williams.
“They know what's at stake,” Benson said. “These guys are hungry to put East Allegheny basketball back on the map.”
East Allegheny girls basketball coach Mike Osiecki is facing the opposite situation as his boys counterpart.
While Benson has a wealth of experience returning to his team, just two players return from an East Allegheny girls team that finished 2-18 in Osiecki's inaugural season.
“This is definitely a rebuilding year,” Osiecki said. “We're definitely young.”
The Wildcats finished last season with just five players, three were graduating seniors. Junior guard Katlyn Keenan, the team's leading scorer, and sophomore guard Stormy Green return.
The rest of the Wildcats' roster is made up of five freshmen and one junior, so Osiecki knows to expect some growing pains this season.
“This is starting fresh, I would say,” Osiecki said. “Last year was kind of hectic coming into it. I got hired the week of the actual season. It was a lot of mad scrambling, getting a lot in. I'm trying to keep an open mind (this season), and I know good things are going to happen. We're just going to go off of hard work. We're at the fundamental stage, and we're really pushing that.”
With just eight players, Osiecki said he's unsure if East Allegheny will field a junior varsity team to help the team develop further. But he said two or three players may join the team, making that possibility more likely.
Osiecki took over the entire East Allegheny girls program, and he's encouraged by the success at the middle school level. For now, however, he'll measure success at the varsity level by the team's improvement and hard work this season.
“A lot of people only look at the wins and losses, (but) I can already see the girls growing,” he said. “It's a big step for ninth-graders — it's not ‘I'm the best player on the court' anymore. ... It's a shock. We had our first scrimmage (Tuesday) night, and there was a lot of bad. But there was a lot of good, too. You've got to roll with it and just keep improving.”
Doug Gulasy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.