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You Had Me at Coached

As a new basketball season is quickly upon us, I’ve been reflecting on the coaches I was privileged to have in my basketball career, who had — and some who continue to have — a tremendous impact on my life.

One never knows who may enter a young boy’s life and either change his direction or help to keep him on the straight-and-narrow. Often, they are labeled Coach. Over my basketball career, I’ve had three coaches in particular who were there for me and had a tremendous influence on my future. The basketball fundamentals taught to me — while important at the time — fade in comparison to the life skills and inspiration each has given me. Having grown up, like many young men today, without a father, except for a strong mother, I was quite rudderless. The game of basketball saved me, and the coaches who mentored me over the years helped me to learn life skills like persistence, focus, resilience, and the value of teamwork and of having great teammates.

As a young, somewhat overweight youngster, my mother was looking for something for me to do to focus my energy and to keep me out of trouble, as I had begun to run with one person in particular who was up to no good. She quickly put a stop to that. Years later, I would find out that it was she who, over time, was in touch with each of the coaches, encouraging them to help me find my direction. I guess you could say she was my first coach.

Enter the Bower basketball League and Dick Welteroth. I was not very good — pudgy and without any real basketball skills. Back then, teams were allowed to cut players, and I remember being so very nervous as we went through fundamental drills and practiced our shooting. I remember Coach Welteroth’s ongoing words of encouragement — give it your best and always hustle. Finally, the big day arrived. But before the cut, there was to be a full-court scrimmage to give the coaches one last look before deciding our fates. I clearly remember pulling up for a jump shot, from like 15 feet, and swish — nothing but net. Thinking to myself, where did that come from? I looked over my shoulder and saw Coach Welteroth with a big smile on his face. I knew I would make the cut. “The game” and I became the best of friends after that. Thanks, Coach Welteroth for giving me the opportunity, the encouragement, and helping me to find my initial love for “the game.”

High school was a challenge for me as I was very socially awkward and not the greatest of students. Once again, “the game” stepped in to save me. That and a first-year head coach by the name of Gary Koons. I sat down with Coach Koons this summer to reminisce about our (1971-72) championship season.

Coach Koons had inherited a talented group of players who played the game constantly but lacked direction and had gone 6-16 the previous year (1970-71). Coach Koons was a no-nonsense Bobby Knight-like task master — who on day one of practice told us, players, you can win a State Championship — and we did.

Discipline and fundamentals were the keys to his coaching philosophy, and having watched us all summer on the playground, he knew that he had to “let the boys run” if we were going to be successful. And run we did to a 17-4, regular-season record, then added five straight playoff victories and the first high school basketball State Championship in Lycoming County history.

If not for the motivation and fiery enthusiasm of Coach Koons, talented as we were, I do not believe we would have captured that crown. During my first year as Coach at SJN, we also suffered through a 2-19 season, and as I agonized over the losses and was looking for direction on how to turn it around, the first man I turned to was Coach Koons for advice. Thanks, Coach Koons, for your encouragement, unfailing support, and ongoing friendship.

Like all high school ballplayers, I had dreams of playing for a D1 college and going pro. In high school, a friend of Coach Koons used to ride the bus with us, who had a connection with LSU — college home of the legendary Pistol Pete Maravich — my high school idol. Coach’s friend used to tell me with a nickname like Pistol Paul I was going to go to LSU. Imagine my surprise when I got a tap on my shoulder, as we were getting ready for our high school state title game, and this person said, “Hi, I’m Coach Ed Wilson from Mansfield College-D2, and I want you to come play ball for me.” My response was — Mansfield! I’m going to LSU, man!

Luckily Coach Wilson did not give up so easily. That summer, I enrolled at Mansfield and over the next four years enjoyed the coaching of a man who was a master of the Xs and Os and as a mentor who treated all his players like family, which is so important when players leave their home comfort areas.

Under Coach Wilson, we won a PSAC State Championship in 1975, won the East Regionals that same year, and went three games deep into the NCAA playoffs. In 1976 we finished 3rd in the East Regionals.

Coach Wilson is now in a nursing home in Lancaster with his lovely wife, Jane. I visit as often as I can and always call at least once a month to remind him what a positive person he has always been in my life. Thanks, Coach Wilson, for giving this skinny young man — his nickname for me was “Bones” — a chance to succeed athletically, in life, and more importantly, for your friendship.

As a former coach myself, while certainly enjoying the success of the wins vs. losses, I always tried to keep the welfare and the future success of the players I was privileged to coach foremost in my mind. To those who are continuing to coach, I applaud you. Despite the sometimes seemingly unappreciated rigors of the profession, know what your positive presence as a coach can mean, as it did in mine, to a young man trying to find his way.

Paul Petcavage

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