Greensburg Salem pays tribute to boys basketball icon ‘Coach Paul’

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Thursday, December 30, 2021 | 12:35 AM


He was a good basketball player at Springdale High School — enough so to earn a scholarship to Westminster — but Paul Sapotichne soon realized he wasn’t going anywhere with a basketball in his hands. So he decided to become a coach.

“I’d always wanted to coach,” he said.

Turns out Westminster was advertising for a graduate assistant for the 1974-75 season. Sapotichne applied and was hired.

The rest, as they say, is history.

On Wednesday night, Greensburg Salem welcomed back Sapotichne, the Golden Lions’ former longtime boys coach, with a tribute dubbed “Coach Paul Night” as the Greensburg Salem Holiday Classic kicked off with a quartet of games on its opening day.

Sapotichne, 68, who led Greensburg Salem to the 2009 PIAA Class 3A championship game and won 399 games during 29 seasons at the school, was honored before the start of the day’s final game between Greensburg Salem and Riverview, where he spent the final six years of a 41-year coaching career.

“He’s meant so much, not only to our school and its basketball program but also to the community,” Greensburg Salem athletic director Frank Sundry said.

Sapotichne retired from Riverview following the 2020-21 covid-19 shortened season.

“It’s really cool that Greensburg Salem and Riverview could play this game,” Sapotichne said.

The teams had been scheduled to meet last season, but the game was canceled.

“What a neat evening,” he said. “My family is here. It’s just great. It’s very nice. I’m honored and flattered they would even think of me.”

How so?

“For three decades,” Sundry said, “coach Paul gave back to this community, and his teams are a testament to his leadership and hard work. It was a no-brainer for us to recognize him on a night like this. We wanted to do it last year, but it didn’t work out.”

Sundry said the tournament beginning next season will be known as the Coach Paul Holiday Classic.

In a coaching career that produced 464 victories, nearly all of them came at Greensburg Salem. When Sapotichne’s Golden Lions lost to Archbishop Carroll, 75-54, in a 2009 state championship game at Penn State, thousands of adoring fans showed up and rose to their feet and cheered at Bryce Jordan Center when the final seconds ticked off the clock.

After the game, Sapotichne nearly was overcome with emotion.

“I couldn’t be prouder of this bunch,” he said at the time. “What they have done to our community, galvanizing the entire community, is unbelievable. They’ve accomplished something that no other Greensburg Salem team in history has ever come close to accomplishing.”

A handful of players from that celebrated team were on hand Wednesday to salute their former coach.

“He had a system, offensively and defensively, and we’d run those sets,” said Chris Klimchock, the point guard on that 2009 state finalist team who is in his first year as men’s coach at Pitt-Greensburg. “He did well keeping us structured but letting us play. If we got out of whack or he didn’t like how things were looking, he had a way of settling us down.”

In his final season with Golden Lions — a 16-7 campaign in 2011-12 — Sapotichne fell just short of 400 victories at the school when Greensburg Salem dropped a 49-43 decision to Central Valley in a WPIAL first-round playoff game.

“I’ve had some people tell me, ‘You’re the only guy I know who stops at 399,’ ” Sapotichne said with a laugh.

Former Greensburg Salem star Jim Neurhr also was recognized Wednesday on the 50th anniversary of his school-record 53-point performance in a victory over Latrobe on Jan. 21, 1972. Neurhr, who went on to play at American University, presented the game ball to be displayed in the Greensburg Salem trophy case.

On the court, Greensburg Salem, which currently plays up in classification one notch to Class 6A, ended a 19-game losing streak by beating Class 2A Riverview, 52-42.

Greensburg Salem coach and alum Mark Zahorchak, who also played for Sapotichne, was relieved following the outcome.

“I never wanted to win a game as badly as I did tonight,” Zahorchak said. “I played for Paul, and we have some great memories. He means everything on earth to me.”

In earlier tournament games, Greensburg Central Catholic beat Mt. Pleasant, 70-51; Jeannette topped Connellsville, 57-42; and Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic outlasted Hempfield, 67-63, in overtime.

The two-day tournament winds up Thursday with Hempfield meeting Connellsville at 3 p.m., followed by Greensburg Central Catholic against Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic at 4:45 p.m., Jeannette vs. Riverview at 6:30 p.m. and Mt. Pleasant against Greensburg Salem at 8:15 p.m.

Sapotichne’s first job at Westminster as a player/coach, but mainly as a coach, was a perfect fit.

“I wound up having the experience of being a college senior and also coaching full time,” he said. “I learned so much about the game. I learned about recruiting, scouting, gameplanning … ”

It was the start of a 41-year run, except for a few brief interruptions when he stepped aside following a harrowing trip to Edinboro and also after his departure from Greensburg Salem.

After one season at Westminster, Sapotichne was getting other job offers to coach basketball and took a position as the junior varsity coach at Wilmington High School in Lawrence County before taking over as varsity coach for three seasons.

After moving to Greensburg, where he learned from his father-in-law to be a real estate broker and appraiser, eventually opening his own office in the city, Sapotichne befriended Bernie Matthews, the iconic former Saint Vincent coach, who hired him as an assistant.

“One night,” Sapotichne said, “I’m coming home from Edinboro, where I’d been scouting, and the weather was so bad. I’m driving home on (Interstate) 79, praying that if I make it home alive, I’m going to resign. I got home alive, and I didn’t coach for a year because I was afraid to break that prayer.”

He turned his attention to his daytime job but soon found himself back on the bench when the Greensburg Salem job opened.

“I didn’t know many people here, but I sure did get to know them in a hurry,” Sapotichne said. “I loved the people. I loved Greensburg Salem.”

Along the way, that 2009 WPIAL championship team overachieved with a group of gritty players that also included Matthews’ son Jake.

A few years after retiring from Greensburg Salem, Sapotichne moved his firm to Oakmont and met Peggy Matthews, who happened to be his old boss Bernie Matthews’ daughter and was superintendent at Riverview.

“She called me and said, ‘We need a new coach.’ ” said Sapotichne, who spent six years with the Raiders, coincidentally coaching Peggy Matthews’ two sons along the way.

And the rest is history.

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