Saulle constructed hall of fame resume while building Freeport girls program

Saturday, March 11, 2023 | 9:55 PM

Expectations weren’t high when Tom Saulle became the Freeport girls basketball coach in 1977.

“Everyone said that I was crazy, that we would never win,” he said.

Saulle took a small step toward proving the doubters wrong in his first season.

“We won two games that year, which was (then) a school record,” he said with a laugh.

But Saulle was laying the foundation for what would become one of more successful girls basketball programs in the Alle-Kiski Valley.

“The third year, we finished .500 at 8-8, and then we never had a losing season after that,” he said.

Overall, the Yellowjackets won 299 games over 20 seasons with Saulle at the coaching helm. He posted two 22-victory seasons and received Valley News Dispatch Coach of the Year honors twice.

For his efforts, Saulle is among 10 honorees set for induction into the Alle-Kiski Valley Sports Hall of Fame on May 20 at The Pittsburgh Shrine Center in Harmar.

An Arnold native, Saulle got his coaching start with the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) boys basketball team at Mount St. Peter Church in New Kensington. He then served as seventh and eighth grade boys coach at Freeport, where he was an elementary school teacher.

“I did that for three years, and then I was approached to take the girls (varsity) job,” he said.

At the time, Freeport had no feeder system for the girls varsity program, and Saulle had to keep the team’s equipment in the trunk of his car because space wasn’t available at the school.

“I remember how hard the girls worked and wanted to get better,” he said. “We were just so far behind, but every year we saw improvement.”

Saulle credited fellow teacher Dave Panuch with helping to develop a junior high program to funnel players to the varsity squad.

“He was my assistant for 15 of my first 16 years,” he said.

Under Saulle, the Yellowjackets won three section titles. His teams qualified 10 times for the WPIAL playoffs and advanced to the PIAA postseason three years in a row.

“In my early years, only the section champs made the WPIAL playoffs. Now they take three or four teams,” he said. “We would have gone (to the playoffs) a lot more times.”

Saulle said he was fortunate to have a bevy of talented student athletes during his Freeport years. Some of his top players were Beth Shearer, who scored a girls school-record 1,527 career points, and Jamie Beechey and Tammy Thompson, who each eclipsed the 1,000-point mark.

“One of the big differences is that when I started coaching, the girls used the boys ball (which is larger),” he said. “When Beth Shearer scored more than 1,500 points, that was with a boys ball and no 3-point line. If that line would have been in, she would have had a lot more points.”

After 16 seasons, Saulle stepped down as coach when he became principal at Buffalo Elementary School. During the time away from coaching, he was able to watch his daughter, Tina, play at nearby Knoch High School.

“That kind of worked out perfectly,” Saulle said. He also has two sons, Lou and Todd. Lou played varsity hoops at Knoch, and Todd played through ninth grade.

Saulle returned as Freeport coach for the 1998-99 through 2001-02 seasons but found the balancing act between his principal duties and coaching too demanding.

“It was a lot of work,” he said. “I would go in to school on the weekends to catch up on paperwork and other things I had to do as principal.”

Penn State New Kensington coaxed Saulle back into coaching to revive the women’s basketball program after a 25-year hiatus. He directed the Lady Lions from 2002-07. In his final two seasons, Saulle said New Ken missed advancing to the final four of the Penn State branch campus state playoffs by one game.

In 2007, Saulle retired from his coaching and educational careers. He spent a total of 36 years as a teacher or principal in the Freeport district.

At 74 years old, he still keeps tabs on high school girls basketball.

“What I’ve noticed is that girls players are a lot less patient these days,” he said. “They want to dribble down and shoot up the 3. … It’s not the way I’m used to coaching. I guess it’s just philosophy.”

Saulle lives in North Huntingdon near Greensburg. But he’s looking forward to the trip back to the A-K Valley for the induction ceremony.

“Being from the Arnold and New Kensington area, I’ve thought about getting into the A-K Hall of Fame. But I figured I’d just let the chips fall where they may,” he said.

If you go

52nd A-K Valley Sports Hall of Fame induction

7 p.m. Saturday, May 20

The Pittsburgh Shrine Center, Harmar

Tickets: $40

Contact: Larry Lutz, 724-822-3695; Fred Soilis, 412-736-1809; Bill Heasley, 724-882-3079


More High School Other

High school scores, summaries and schedules for March 29, 2023
High school scores, summaries and schedules for March 28, 2023
High school scores, summaries and schedules for March 27, 2023
High school sports scores, schedules for March 26, 2023
Sports luminaries highlight long-awaited West Jefferson Hills Hall of Fame inductions