1st-year coaches take lessons from Franklin Regional basketball season

Saturday, March 12, 2022 | 11:01 AM

While their teams fell short of the WPIAL postseason, first-year basketball coaches Jesse Reed and Bernie Pucka saw new systems begin to take root and programs take on new personalities this winter.

The boys finished 7-14 overall and 5-7 in section and lost out on a tiebreaker to make the playoffs after finishing in a three-way tie with McKeeport and Woodland Hills.

The girls were 6-15, 2-10 and finished a spot from the bottom in their section.

Led by senior Caden Smith and sophomore Cam Rowell, the Panthers relied on tight defense to kickstart their offense.

Reed said his players developed in their skills and made better in-game decisions as the season wore on.

“They started reading the court better and finishing plays that we weren’t early on,” Reed said. “The biggest thing we improved on was the way we competed as a group. I think early on everything was new and guys were feeling us out as a staff and feeling out one another on the court. Once they started to get more comfortable, they really started competing harder and playing more confident.”

Other seniors Nick Neuschwander and Jordan Suvak, who missed the last part of the season with an injury, were key leaders.

Junior Jake Kimmich displayed backcourt leadership, sophomore Fin Hutchison showed promise as a shooter, and 6-foot-8 junior Max Leven continued to develop his post game.

“I can’t say I would go back and change anything this season,” Reed said. “I had a great group of guys who worked their butts off every day. Do I wish we could have snuck out a couple more wins and made the playoffs? Of course. Our seniors deserved one more chance to make a playoff run. But we gave everything we had … Now the next thing is to learn from it.”

The youthful Panthers girls team ended the season with five straight losses and dropped 10 of 11.

“This season taught me to appreciate the high level of competition within the section and a single win on the schedule takes absolutely everything you’ve got,” Pucka said. “I’m reminded of the importance of winning every possession within a game, which ultimately stems from perfect practice and preparation.”

Pucka said he figured out his team was 12 points away from a 5A playoff spot.

The Panthers had a one-point loss to Greensburg Salem in overtime and dropped a pair to Gateway by six and five points.

“The overall outcome certainly doesn’t indicate how far we’ve come and how much we’ve grown as a team,” Pucka said.

Reed said his biggest surprise in what he expected to be a four-month grind was the here-and-gone of his rookie season.

“I felt like we just got started and then, before I knew it, we were at senior night,” he said. “I guess the old saying goes, time flies when you’re having fun.”

His first win, which came in the third game of the season at the Mike Rettger Tournament at Franklin Regional (53-47 over 6A playoff team Penn-Trafford) stands out to Reed. But so does a 42-37 win at Kiski Area to start the back-half of Section 3-5A play.

“We were down at the half and clawed our way back for a tough win,” Reed said. “That was one of our best defensive games of the season.”

Offseason workouts already were on Pucka’s mind, just days after the season ended.

“Most of our girls play AAU, so I’m hopeful that as we gather again, their individual skills have developed from their AAU experiences,” he said. “Fortunately for us, we have a ton of competition amongst teammates. Competition is a good thing. When the girls compete, the practice atmosphere improves, and ultimately we get better.”

One unique thing about Franklin Regional is that this year’s roster had no seniors, so everyone is expected to return.

That includes key scorers Sarah Penrod, a junior, and sophomore Angelina Brush, as well as juniors Avery Musto, Brooke Shirmer and Sophia Yaniga, 6-foot freshman Toryn Fulton and sophomore Sophia Reitz, among others.

Pucka said winning the Laurel Highlands tournament stands out as a highlight, along with winning the home opener against Kiski Area.

Both coaches pointed to young staffs as part of their programs’ foundation.

“I learned how important it is to have a great staff,” Reed said. “My assistants were so helpful the basketball side, as well as just the day-to-day of how a high school season operated. I’m extremely thankful that I have them with me.

“I have a long way to go before I become the coach I aspire to be. I’m very fortunate to have a great staff and a great network of other coaches that I will continue to learn from.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@triblive.com or via Twitter .


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