Former YSU assistant takes over at Struthers

STRUTHERS — Mike Wernicki couldn’t wait until he stepped out on the Beeghly Center floor.

Familiar faces surrounded him, officials, opposing players and coaches. He chatted with them as both teams warmed up prior to a Youngstown State University men’s basketball game.

Sitting alongside coach Jerry Slocum for 12 seasons, wearing the red and black, representing the Penguins — a position he reveled in each and every day.

Slocum retired in March of 2017 and Wernicki was not retained by the new staff. He has been waiting to share his two-plus decades of basketball knowledge with another institution.

Earlier this week, he traded the red and black of YSU for the similar colors of Struthers High School as the Struthers Board of Education named him the new boys basketball coach, replacing James Franceschelli, who resigned after four seasons. That was more than a month ago.

Wernicki said Mark Metzka, who was on Franceschelli’s staff, let him know about the job opening at Struthers. Wernicki was aware of collegiate openings, but wasn’t familiar with the local high school scene.

Slocum, whose grandson Aiden worked out with Mark’s son Trey, also made Wernicki aware about the opening.

Wernicki, an Erie, Pa., native, was a student assistant at Pittsburgh and assistant at Mercyhurst (Pa.) and Canisius before joining Slocum’s staff at YSU. His only high school experience, a one-year stint at Franklin Regional High School.

“If you don’t have a healthy respect for being a head coach, preparing your guys and being prepared, preparing for every single team you play, then you’ll get your butt handed to you,” he said. “I understand that.”

Leaning on Slocum’s 40-plus years of experience is going to help as well.

“I’m sure we’ll talk 1,000 times before the season starts,” Wernicki said. “He’ll be around and he’ll be somebody if I have any questions, he’ll be the first person I can call.

“If he was sitting here right now and was in this conversation, I’m sure he would say, ‘You know what you’re doing. You have to be confident in what you decide to do. Just be yourself.'”

Wernicki, a former University of Pittsburgh basketball player in the early 1990s and graduate in 1996, doesn’t want to rush things with these returning Struthers players. Get a staff in place, work with his players to make them better each day and improve individually. That’s the plan until the end of July. August is a dead period for high school basketball, so he hopes those lessons are implemented when the team can get back together in September.

“I want to make sure we have a good foundation and the kids have a good feel for me and what I expect from them, how hard I expect them to work,” Wernicki said. “I want to get the same feel from them, how hard they’re willing to work.

“We’ve got a lot of good kids out here, so I don’t think I’ll have any issues with that.”

He’s had great Horizon League players he’s recruited and worked with over the years at YSU — Cameron Morse, Blake Allen, DeAndre Mays and Vytus Sulskis to name a few.

But who can forget one of the best to don a YSU uniform — Kendrick Perry?

None at Struthers can measure up to Perry’s ilk, but those players are hard to find wherever you go. Wernicki does have a good group of players to work with heading into the 2018-19 season.

“They’ve got a really good group of young kids,” said Wernicki, who lives 2 miles away from the high school. “The Struthers area I like. The Fieldhouse is awesome. There’s a lot of decent things and nice traditions about Struthers that I like. A lot of things I can relate to and a lot of things I liked as a coach or a player.”

There are some things like submitting box scores to area media outlets and other day-to-day operations that were handled at the collegiate level. It’s something he’ll have to get used to as a head coach.

“For me, all those little things will drive me the craziest,” he said.

Wernicki is looking forward to the challenge when the Wildcats take the floor in early December.

“I have no idea what it’s going to be like the first game,” he said. “Those are things I have to figure out. I have to be myself.

“I have to do what feels natural to me.”

For Wernicki, that’s coaching basketball — a job he’s known most of his life.