Chris Niemiec spent the 2013 basketball season tending to a different building project. Niemiec, who spent the previous three seasons as the head coach of Jefferson-Morgan’s boys basketball, took a year off to focus on a start-up company.
During the months of focusing on a business, Niemiec missed the atmosphere of a high school basketball game and during this past season would think about the time spent coaching athletes at practice and during games.
After Jefferson-Morgan decided not to retain Ellen Hildebrand as girls basketball coach, Niemiec jumped at the opportunity to return to coaching. As a resident in the J-M school district, it was an easy decision to apply for the vacancy. Niemiec inherits a program that has made the WPIAL playoffs two straight seasons.
Niemiec was officially hired during a school board meeting Monday night. The longtime high school basketball coach brings a wealth of experience to the Rockets’ program, which recently completed a 12-11 season that included a berth in the WPIAL Class A playoffs. After Hildebrand’s unexpected departure, the job was posted and Niemiec saw the opportunity to return to the coaching ranks.
“Chris is familiar with the district,” said Scot Moore, Jefferson-Morgan athletic director. “He understands how things work, and he has experience. He’s a good choice.”
Over the past year, while Niemiec was flooded with the time-consuming responsibilities of his new business, he began to miss the game of basketball. While tending to work on week nights over the winter, he often thought what he would be discussing with his team if he were still coaching. A return to basketball seemed inevitable after 13 years spent as a high school assistant and head coach.
Niemiec had a 25-43 record as J-M’s boys coach that included three trips to the WPIAL playoffs, including once in Class AA.
“I was definitely coming back, Niemiec said. “I coached for 13 years as an assistant and a head coach. Even though I was busy, I wanted to go to games and was thinking about if I was practicing right now, what I’d be going over and those types of things. I missed it.”
While the majority of his experience has been coaching boys, the transition to girls basketball is one Niemiec welcomes. He takes over a program that made the playoffs last season and is returning every player.
“There is talent there,” Niemiec said. “They have everyone returning, they didn’t lose any seniors, and it’s always good to go into a situation where expectations are to make the playoffs every time.”
McKenzie named Pennsylvania’s best
Now that most high school senior football players have signed letters of intent and recruiting classes for Division I programs are nearly filled, Scout.com released its final prospect ratings in Pennsylvania for the Class of 2014.
At the top of the list is Shai McKenzie, who graduated from Washington High School early in order to attend Virginia Tech’s spring football workouts. McKenzie is the school’s all-time leading rusher with 4,856 yards, which ranks 15th in WPIAL history, and rushed for 650 yards and 11 touchdowns before sustaining a season-ending knee injury in the Prexies’ third game against Charleroi last season.
Also making the list is Monessen’s Justice Rawlins, who was selected to the Observer-Reporter’s Elite 11 this season and was named the No. 46 best player in the state. Rawlins had several Division I scholarship offers after an standout season as a freshman linebacker, but a knee injury forced him to sit out his sophomore season and ultimately erased the scholarship offers. Rawlins is deciding between California University and walking on at Penn State, which has been in contact with him since James Franklin took over as head coach.
Canon-McMillan and Peters Township have a new baseball opponent in Section 5-AAAA from the realignments announced by the WPIAL Monday. Brashear is out and Carrick, a Class AAA team last year, is in after moving up.
Waynesburg moved out of Section 3-AAA, which features McGuffey, South Fayette and Trinity. The Raiders move down and will compete in Section 2-AA. Fort Cherry and Burgettstown switched from Section 2 to Section 1 in Double-A.
In Class A, Section 1 lost Avella to Section 5 but gained Bentworth; and Monessen gained two natural rivals in Section 2 with the additions of Greensburg Central Catholic and Jeannette.
In softball, Ringgold and Trinity joined Belle Vernon, Elizabeth Forward, McKeesport, Thomas Jefferson and West Mifflin in Section 3-AAA. Carrick replaces Brashear in Section 4-AAAA.
In Class AA, Burgettstown moved from Section 2 to Section 1, and will renew rivalries with Chartiers-Houston and Fort Cherry. Section 2 added Carmichaels and Charleroi.
Section 1-A is now made up of schools from Washington and Greene counties: Avella, Chartiers-Houston, Fort Cherry, Jefferson-Morgan, Mapletown and West Greene.
In Section 2-A, California will have new opponents in Frazier, Geibel, Greensburg Central Catholic, Jeannette and Monessen.
Ward to be inducted into Hall
Don Ward, a graduate of Trinity High School, will be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, Virginia Chapter, April 12 in Glen Allen, Va.
Ward wrestled at Trinity, winning a district tile, but made his way to Bullis Prep School in Silver Spring, Md., to play football. He entered the Naval Academy in 1957 and took up wrestling again.
During his time in the U.S. Air Force, Ward became an official and began a long career with summer tournaments and youth programs. In 1976, Ward persuaded Duane Day to coach at Poquoson High School and Day, also a Trinity graduate, led the team to five state championships. Day later was head coach at Fort Cherry High School.
Ward was instrumental in helping create the Virginia Duals tournament, one of the top schoolboy events in the nation. With his electrical engineering degree, he became one of the few experts in repairing Daktronics wrestling clocks in the area.
Ward was Grand Marshal for the 2012 Virginia Duals and was awarded the Wrestling Man of the Year Award by the Newport News Shipbuilding Apprentice School.
Assistant sports editor Joe Tuscano contributed to the story.