Monessen school board: Penguins’ offer to pay for girls basketball team bus appreciated, not necessary

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Tuesday, March 7, 2023 | 3:30 PM


Efforts to pay for a charter bus to transport the Monessen girls basketball team to a PIAA playoff game — a movement that included the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation offering to foot the bill — were appreciated but not necessary, the district solicitor said at the Monessen school board meeting Tuesday night.

Solicitor Christina Lane spoke for the directors at the meeting.

“The board certainly appreciates the support of those in the community and other sports organizations, such as the Pittsburgh Penguins, who stepped in to offer their support to fund the transportation,” Lane said. “As the board has already taken care of the transportation, it does not find it appropriate at this time to accept those gracious donations.”

The board chartered a bus from T.A. Nelson Coach Lines in Connellsville.

The saga started when a social media post by Monessen’s boosters Monday picked up steam and prompted a number of donors to respond to a plea for help paying for a charter bus for the nearly four-hour trek north to Duke Center, an NBA 3-pointer from the New York state line.

The Greyhounds (17-6) play at Otto-Eldred (23-2) at 3 p.m. Saturday.

The Facebook post had a long reach. Local radio and television stations picked up on it, and it spread across Twitter as well.

“I started getting calls from people around 9:30-10 a.m. (Tuesday),” Monessen athletic director Gina Naccarato said. “One of the calls was from Jim Britt of the Penguins. He said they would cover the cost of the bus.

“He said, ‘Send us the bill.’”

The Penguins said they were happy to pitch in.

“We always look for ways to make a positive impact on our city and region,” said Kevin Acklin, president of business operations for the Penguins. “We will be cheering hard for the Monessen girls basketball team on Saturday.”

Monessen head coach Janine Vertacnik said the efforts gave her program an emotional lift.

“The outpouring of generosity, support and kindness from within our own community, along with the surrounding areas, has been truly amazing,” Vertacnik said. “Communities rally around sports, for both boys and girls, and it truly brings people of all color, ethnicity, religion together as one.

“We are forever grateful to all those who donated and shared our story. Let’s go Pens!”

After the Penguins foundation’s offer, boosters attempted to return community donations to the cause, but donors told the team to keep the money. Those funds, about $800, will go toward the program.

The story then took another turn at the school board meeting Tuesday evening.

Greyhounds players Sidney Campbell, Hailey Johnson, MyAsia Majors and Madison Johnson attended the meeting, along with Vertacnik, assistant coach Jessica Popovich and team mom Christina Johnson.

Last year, the team traveled around three and a half hours on a school bus to Elk County for a playoff game.

“That was pretty awful,” Popovich said.

Recalling last year’s trip, Vertacnik said she originally requested a charter through Naccarato, who in turn contacted superintendent Robert Motte. When word came down, she was told they would take a school bus.

“I called Gina, which I think is the chain of command,” Vertanik said. “She said, “OK, I’m in agreement. I need to get a hold of Dr. Motte.’

“So she got a hold of Dr. Motte, which is what I’m told. And whoever he contacted — I don’t know the whole story — and it came back to, ‘The board couldn’t afford to pay for the bus.’

“So I told the kids, ‘We’re not going to get a bus. We’re taking a school bus. So let’s go to the school board meeting and present our case and make them understand what it’s like. Ask them how we can help.’

“So they went home and told their parents. That’s how it got started.”

Lane, however, said the school board planned to purchase transportation for the team prior to the social media storm. She said the attention unfairly cast a poor light on the board.

“It was always the board’s intention to provide the team a charter or similar transportation to the playoff game,” she said. “Unfortunately, the time it took the board to consider the best price for this charter transportation was twisted into a negative narrative that the board would actually … require the team to take a school bus.”

Motte said the district purchased the charter right before receiving the Penguins’ offer, which was around 9:45 a.m. Tuesday, according to Naccarato.

Motte added that he plans to contact the foundation to alert them of the board’s decision.

Board president Doreen Smith said the time it took to find a reasonable charter created confusion.

“I would have never in my wildest dreams thought that trying to find reasonable transportation, or doing some leg work and calling up companies, was going to lead into what it led into,” Smith said. “That’s where the miscommunication was.”

The board gave a chance for players and coaches to present their perspective after the board’s opening statement.

“My post was not negative to anybody here,” Popovich said. “I just asked for donations — whatever anybody could do in this community. As a small community, I understand if there’s not funding.

“It was nothing harmful. … There’s a lot of positives that came from it.”

Smith said the board fully supports the team and asked students and coaches to come to the district with future concerns before taking to social media.

“I hate for something to get that blown out of proportion when it was never our intent,” Smith said.

After the meeting, some Greyhounds said past treatment has left them feeling unappreciated.

“We sometimes feel undervalued,” Campbell said. “Everyone goes to the boys games. It always feels like it’s been about the boys, not the girls.

“There was a misunderstanding, I guess. We just didn’t know that we were appreciated.”

Smith and Motte responded to the team’s comments, emphasizing that the district wants the best for all its students.

“We’re all very proud of you,” Smith said.

Naccarato said the bus issue takes a snapshot of a larger concern with the state playoffs.

“The PIAA needs to make it more feasible for the smaller schools,” she said. “I get the reward for earning the higher seed, but maybe have (higher-seeded) teams play at a school that is closer to them, but not as far for the (lower seed).”

The PIAA for years used neutral sites for first round, quarterfinals and semifinals. Only since the covid pandemic in 2020 has the state association gone to home sites.

Six Westmoreland County basketball teams will travel an average of 273 miles round-trip for first-round games Friday and Saturday.

Greensburg Central Catholic’s boys will play at Otto-Eldred at 4:30 p.m. Saturday. The Centurions will arrive in a charter bus, paid for by the school.

Bill Beckner Jr. and Max Robinette contributed to this report. Beckner is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Bill at bbeckner@triblive.com or via Twitter @BillBeckner. Robinette is a Mon Valley Independent staff writer.

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