BY CHUCK CURLEY
The irony is that two alumni will begin their basketball season as varsity head coaches next week while the alma mater doesn’t get to play the sport at all.
“It’s been a year like no other, that’s for sure,” North Schuylkill’s new head coach, Will Bracey, said recently about the boys’ basketball season that will resume Jan. 8 following one night of competition.
That competition consisted of non-league games for both Pottsville, a 58-37 loser to Wilson West Lawn at Martz Hall, and Nativity, which fell 72-51 at Allentown Central Catholic, on Dec. 11.
The rest of the Schuylkill League has had to wait because of Gov. Tom Wolf’s order to close down interscholastic sports until Jan. 4 because of the spike in coronavirus cases. The season resumes Friday, Jan. 8, after the PIAA-mandated requirement of practices is met.
At that point, Bracey and Mahanoy Area’s new head coach, Teddy Styka, will put their teams onto the court for the first time while the place of their college careers, Penn State Schuylkill, sits the season out. The Penn State University Athletic Conference recently canceled its winter sports season, continuing a sports drought that began in March at the Schuylkill Haven campus.
So, indirectly, it will be up to Bracey and Styka to carry the Penn State Schuylkill banner as their high school teams compete, including one game against each other, this season.
“At the end of the day, I look at it as a brotherhood,” Styka said of his connection to Bracey. “I went to Penn State Schuylkill from 2005 to 2010 and I met a lot of people, and they’re now all over the world.”
While Bracey played at PSU-Schuylkill from 2014-17, he still shares a direct connection to Styka. Current PSU-Schuylkill head coach Travis Williams was an assistant coach when Styka was becoming the Lions’ second 1,000-point career scorer. Williams then was Bracey’s head coach, and it is a bond that remains to this day.
“He’s a great person to have in my support system,” Bracey said of Williams. “I’ve been talking to him throughout the whole process. He’s been trying to help me. He knew my passion for coaching.”
That passion led Bracey to become a full-time basketball trainer with a clientele of more than two dozen throughout the region, though he is taking a step back now to focus on improving North Schuylkill’s boys’ program.
“I want this to be my career,” he said about coaching, “so it’s a fair tradeoff and it’s still basketball, so I love it.”
That love comes from a place that craves basketball — North Carolina, where Bracey spent his childhood and where loyalties can split families.
“Down there, my whole family are Tar Heels,” Bracey, 27, said. “They live and die by Dean Smith and Roy Williams. My cousin went to North Carolina State to play baseball. Nobody likes Duke. The only one that does is me. It’s insane, and they give me grief for it all of the time.”
But Bracey, the aspiring coach who began as an assistant at North Schuylkill under predecessor Ty Wartman, said he has taken particular notice of how Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski interacts with his players.
“This game teaches so many lessons throughout your life that you learn from and you grow from to be a better person,” Bracey said. “That’s something he displays by the way his former players speak of him.”
Styka has seen such growth firsthand. As the seventh-eighth grade coach at Mahanoy Area for the last three years, he will see those boys mature fully as varsity head coach this season.
“Watching the kids compete and get better every night, that’s my goal,” Styka said. “I want to see them blossom and see them grow. Most of all, I want kids, when they graduate, to be productive members of society.”
Styka can offer himself as an example. Since his days scoring 1,041 points for for coaches Joe Schaeffer and Matt Schwenk at PSU-Schuylkill and then continuing to play in adult summer leagues locally, Styka said he has four jobs, including service as chairman of the Mahanoy Township supervisors.
Another is coaching basketball and taking the step this season to supervise the entire Mahanoy Area program.
“Teddy is someone I had known for a couple years now just because of the relationship we had going to the same school,” Bracey said. “I knew he wanted to coach there. … He’s worked so hard to get where he is right now.”
And now Bracey, who earned his PSU-Schuylkill degree in corporate communications, and Styka, who majored in criminal justice at PSU-Schuylkill, have the same goal — bringing their teams back among the elite in the Schuylkill League.
“Back to the top where I was,” said Styka, who won the Schuylkill League title under Mickey Holland at Mahanoy Area after previously playing for North Schuylkill.
Bracey said, “I don’t want to think too much about the future. Right now, I’m just here at North Schuylkill and I’m committed to building this program up and bring the prestige back to this program when they were winning district titles and league titles.”
Both can start by taking the words of Travis Williams to heart.
“When I called him, he just told me to be me,” Bracey said. “He said, ‘A lot of young coaches get caught up with the X’s and O’s and not about the relationships. .. Just be you and do what you have to do set the culture and the tone about how you want your program to be run.’ ”
Curley covers boys’ basketball for The Republican Herald. Contact the writer: email@example.com; 570-628-6019