Sunday, February 11, 2024 | 6:42 PM
In the 2020 book, “Alle-Kiski Sports History,” local historian George Guido’s writings offer a multitude of highlights from the Allegheny-Kiski Valley region’s rich sports history, including a nod to the Highlands 1985 WPIAL championship boys basketball team.
Ed Jenkins recalls so well that magical time. He was a key part of an exciting Rams team, yet his mind continually has wandered ahead to where he’s been coaching guys of that same age at Valley, a school roughly six miles from Highlands and with a decidedly more celebrated history of championship teams.
“There’s great pedigree there of players from my generation, my father’s generation, my grandfather’s generation,” said former Valley football star Greg Meisner, a 1977 graduate who played 11 seasons in the NFL prior to his induction into the WPIAL Hall of Fame in June 2023. “Growing up, all you heard about was these people, and you wanted to be like them.”
Jenkins, too, has been aware of it for as long as he can remember.
But while he’s drawn to improving the Valley basketball team’s results — the Vikings finished Jenkins’ inaugural season Friday night with a 58-44 loss at Burrell and out of playoff contention at 5-15 (3-9 in Section 3-3A) — he’s fixated more on the interest of his young, impressionable players.
Jenkins, the coach, prefers calling it “mentoring.”
“When I was at Highlands, I had a good group of educators who constantly were looking out for me,” he said. “It helped to shape my life.”
Jenkins recalls so well that magical time, and he has been motivated to shape the lives of young people through sports of their own.
Jenkins, who also is a former Leechburg basketball coach, is hoping to stay with the Valley program long enough to make a difference. For now, it’s OK not to worry. The results, he said, will come.
“You just have to have faith,” he said, hopeful that a first-year coaching staff can reestablish a once-proud basketball program in a vastly different setting.
“The thing I probably appreciate most about this year’s team is its receptiveness to what we offer as a first-year coaching staff. We’ve not been familiar with these kids until now. I feel like, for me, it’s a ministry to a certain extent. I believe it’s a great opportunity to pour into the lives of high school students some positivity.
“It’s an age group that’s at a crossroads. Depending on where they are, they can be left out. I’ve coached a lot of kids who don’t have guidance for the next phase of life.”
Jenkins was assisted by Justice Evans, the former Valley football star who is among IUP’s all-time leading rushers, and former Valley basketball star Tom Weremeychik, who went on to play at St. Vincent.
When Jenkins was hospitalized following a mild heart attack shortly after the start of practices, he said Evans and Weremeychik handled the team seamlessly.
“Thank goodness for good assistant coaches. They were wonderful,” he said.
Jenkins is encouraged by the chemistry the staff is developing, and he’s hoping it’s making an impression on the players.
The Vikings lose a pair of seniors in the regular rotation, Jacob Staraniec and Keyziyah Clay, but they return 6-foot-5 Michael Allen, along with Jaden Wall from the starting lineup, as well as sophomores-to-be Julian Danko, Dominic Dunkel and Roman D’Argon.
“There’s a responsibility for men like myself and some of the other guys I coach with to mentor these student-athletes who may not have the same opportunities and resources that I did. I’m not selective in the process, but those are easily identifiable that when you talk to them and their situation, it becomes immediately inherent that they need somebody to guide them.
“So, that’s what my purpose is. It’s not to win championships or games. Those things are nice. It’s when student-athletes graduate from high school that they have a chance to be productive in society and to be a good husband and person.”
The days of domination on the hardwood at Valley may not return, but it is Jenkins’ ultimate hope for a more well-rounded student-athlete in the classroom and on the playing field.
“It’s a different era now,” said former Burrell and Knoch coach Ron McNabb, the point guard for Valley’s spectacular 1979 WPIAL champion, a team that also included such household names as Chipper Harris, Benjie Pryor, Billy Varner and Vern Benson.
But McNabb, who operates Pittsburgh Basketball Academy, said high school athletics unpredictably offers periods of strong years and some leaner times.
“High school athletes are so cyclical,” he said. “You can’t recruit. That’s why it’s important to develop a feeder program. It’s sad what’s happened. We had a lot of great tradition and a lot of pride. A lot of games we just dominated.”
Jenkins dreams of a time when Valley shows signs of a possible return to its past success. Other than the 2021 covid season, when the WPIAL voted all basketball teams eligible following a regular-season schedule marred by canceled games, the Vikings haven’t qualified for the playoffs since 2018, a span of five seasons.
Even if Jenkins felt compelled above anything else to prioritize winning, he’s likely to find it difficult to sustain it just the same.
What once was an area where securing a spot on the playground courts of New Kensington for your pickup team’s next game was met with fierce competition, McNabb says the courts now are mainly baron.
“Like many other places, population has dropped,” he said. “But I remember going downtown in New Kensington to the JFK Courts. (Former Valley star) B.B. Flenory was four years older than me, but he really took me under the wings. He taught me the way. You had to be tough to play in the playground. It really taught you how to compete. It’s different now. If it’s not structured basketball, there’s nobody much playing.”