North Allegheny girls basketball coach Spencer Stefko returns after battling covid

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Tuesday, December 8, 2020 | 9:05 AM


North Allegheny’s Spencer Stefko, the reigning PIAA Class 6A girls basketball coach of the year, will never forget this past Thanksgiving.

“My wife and I ate 20 feet apart,” he said, “with each of us right next to an open window.”

Stefko last week joined his defending WPIAL champion Tigers at practice after a prolonged battle with covid-19 that included a 21-day fever of 101-plus degrees.

The 44-year-old Stefko began to feel symptoms Nov. 11 and subsequent tests revealed he had a virus that has killed more than 284,000 in the United States.

Because he had attended a North Allegheny open gym one day earlier, the program was shut down for two weeks. The girls were quarantined at home, forcing the start of 2020-21 practice to be pushed back from Nov. 20, when the rest of the WPIAL began workouts, until Nov. 25, the day before Stefko and his wife Megan had their extremely socially-distanced Thanksgiving dinner.

Stefko said to the best of his knowledge, none of the players or other coaches on the staff developed symptoms or tested positive. His wife also was cleared. As part of the covid-19 protocols, players and coaches must wear masks during practice and during full-speed drills or scrimmages. North Allegheny, which has won three of the past four WPIAL Class 6A titles, is scheduled to open the season Sunday against visiting Penn Hills.

“I brought it into an open gym and got our program shut down for 14 days,” Stefko said. “I didn’t mean to. I wasn’t feeling it. That was how our season started. Our season started late because of me.”

Stefko was cleared to return to practice Dec. 1, and he said he is almost completely recovered. He said he still hasn’t regained his senses of taste or smell, and his energy level is lower than normal. But the sixth-year coach, who is 129-14 at North Allegheny, feels fortunate.

“To be honest, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world,” he said. “It was just long. But I sure am blessed compared to people who have had less favorable outcomes. I consider myself super-blessed. Nobody else in the program, that we know of, got it. My wife didn’t get it.”

Stefko said he is uncertain how he contracted the virus. He said he was diligent in following safety protocols and he and wife “haven’t gone out to eat in months.”

“We stay home,” he said, “but if you are going to teach and coach, that’s part of the deal. … This (virus) is going to come to people regardless. You can try your best, but it still might come to you.”

North Allegheny assistant coaches Eric and Rebecca Braithwaite ran the first week of practice while home-bound Stefko used Zoom on a tablet computer to keep tabs on things. And the players had done their best to stay in shape during their own two-week quarantine.

“They ran things at practice better than I would have if I was there,” Stefko said of his longtime assistants. “The kids did a great job. It wasn’t like it was a big deal that the head coach wasn’t there. It was just we only had two coaches there instead of three. When I got back after a couple of days, it was like they didn’t even need me.”

All-state senior guard Lizzy Groetsch said the players and assistants were merely adapting to another challenge. Last season came to a halt when the pandemic canceled their 2019-20 PIAA title hopes. The Tigers were 24-3 at the time, including 24-1 against Pennsylvania teams, and had reached the state quarterfinals.

“I think it was a reminder to us that while we’re all super excited to play, this season will be filled with many unexpected challenges,” Groetsch said. “We will have to be flexible.”

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