Justin Walther brings competitive fire to Plum boys basketball program

Friday, July 1, 2022 | 2:21 PM

The Plum Mustangs made the WPIAL boys basketball playoffs seven times in the nine-year span from 2008-16 — but only once since.

Plum would like to get back to that scenario as quickly as possible.

The school board earlier this week hired Justin Walther, coach at Winchester Thurston the past two seasons and Serra Catholic four previous seasons.

Walther replaces Mark Marino, who went 23-25, 14-22 in section play, in his three seasons as Mustangs coach. Marino did lead Plum to a playoff victory over West Allegheny on Feb. 27, 2021.

“We’re looking to add stability; we’ve had some turnover,” Walther said of his immediate goals. “We’re looking to get back to respectability and get the program back to the plateau it reached under (coach) Ron Richards.”

At Winchester-Thurston, the Bears posted a 20-14 record under Walther, making the WPIAL playoffs both seasons. His Serra team made the WPIAL finals in 2019 while compiling a 21-5 overall record.

Walther’s expertise is putting the ball in the hoop. His Winchester-Thurston teams averaged 66.5 points per game the last two seasons, second-best in Class 2A behind record-setting Our Lady of the Sacred Heart.

As a player, he graduated from Central Catholic in 1995 as the school’s second-leading all-time scorer. At Pitt-Johnstown, he set that school’s career scoring mark with 2,073 points.

“I’ll coach by adapting to the personnel we have,” Walther said. “At Winchester, we had three guards and went up and down the court as one of the top-scoring teams. If we have some ‘bigs,’ we have to see what we have to work with.”

Walther is anxious to meet with the team members and their parents next week.

“I don’t see a rebuild, and I think we’ll have the energy level we need,” Walther said.

Walther played for two of the most successful coaches in Western Pennsylvania, Chuck Crummie at Central Catholic and Riverview graduate Bob Rukavina at Pitt-Johnstown.

Crummie and Rukavina have combined for almost 1,200 career victories — Crummie with 653 and Rukavina with 528.

“He’s one of the most competitive guys I’ve ever coached,” Rukavina said. “Even in practice he was so competitive when we’d do something like play to 10. He had tremendous skill on the court.”

Said Walther: “At Central, coach Crummie was always tough and someone I’ve looked up to. He and I still talk a lot. We’re still close and I learned a lot from Coach. Coach Rukavina was at our state playoff game and we talk quite often. It’s crazy the amount of years he has at UPJ and how he keeps going.”

Rukavina is not surprised by Walther’s coaching success.

“He knows that game of basketball and it seems to have served him well as a coach,” Rukavina said. “If he can transfer his competitiveness to his players, that would be a big help. I’m happy for him getting the job at Plum.”

Plum will remain in Class 5A for the next two seasons, and the Mustangs will play Section 2 opponents Armstrong, Fox Chapel, Penn Hills, Shaler and Woodland Hills.

Walther also likes the idea of home games at Plum’s modern gymnasium.

“I was there for a playoff game when I was an assistant at West Mifflin,” Walther recalled. “It’s got to be one of the top five facilities in the WPIAL.”


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