Frank Sciolla and Zach Sibel.
There’s an unmistakable similarity between the coaching styles of the two SOL coaches, and it’s hardly a coincidence. Sibel, who took over the helm of the Central Bucks West program this year, played high school basketball for Sciolla at Pennsbury.
Ask Sciolla – in his fourth year as head coach of Pennsbury girls’ basketball - what he remembers about Sibel as a player at Pennsbury, and he has an immediate answer.
“Zach started his career for us as an energy guy,” said Sciolla. “He was that kid that got under people’s skins on some great teams here – those great Dalton Pepper teams.
“He carved out a niche for himself as someone who played really hard in practice and didn’t back down from the best player and – in fact – was willing to guard Dalton Pepper and not back down to the point where it would upset Dalton.
“He took that to where he would come out on the court, and he would maximize his playing time, but it was really how he approached practice every single day, and he made himself a really valuable member of the excellent teams. My last year when we were still really good with the Jesse Krasna teams – he took on a bigger role on the floor. The other piece was his leadership in the locker room.”
Sibel remembers going to his first Pennsbury game as a fifth grader while he was still living in Morrisville and getting his first glimpse of Sciolla.
“Everyone knew Pennsbury was coming to town, so everybody wanted to go to the game,” Sibel said. “I remember seeing (Sciolla) on the sidelines and seeing how enthusiastic he was, how energetic he was – I remember thinking it was really cool.
“I remember distinctly watching a player named Brian Besecker make a diving play and lost his tooth on the Morrisville floor. I thought probably that’s the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I remember seeing that play and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s awesome.’ That’s how kids played for him, that’s what he got out of kids.
“Then I moved to Pennsbury, and the whole dream was to play for him. You knew you were going to have fun, but you knew you were going to have a chance to do something special with a special group. Just his energy was always something that attracted me as a player. Energy is contagious I think. If you can bring positive energy, you can get the most out of people. I think that’s a really important aspect.”
Sibel definitely inherited some of Sciolla’s energy, and the veteran coach laughs when he recalls Sibel – as an underclassman – firing up the crowd during pregame warm-ups prior to a district playoff game against Owen J Roberts. It was the final home game of Pepper’s stellar career.
“For whatever reason, we gave Owen J Roberts about 250 tickets thinking because they were so far away that they wouldn’t come down,” Sciolla said. “But Owen J Roberts was having a really big year, and they sold every last one of those tickets, so they packed the stands behind their bench.
“When the kids went out to warm up and they go to that point where they do in the circle, which is always at the same time, I have never heard the gym go more wild. Those teams used to come out to “The Imperial March,” the Darth Vader music. They would come out and they would get in a circle, and Sibel, on this night, decided to get in the middle, and he did a full-on dance routine, and he blew the roof off the place because Owen J Roberts fans couldn’t believe it – they went crazy. We didn’t know how we felt about that. Are people going to be upset? So we said, ‘Maybe it’s not a great idea.’
“So we got to the next round at Council Rock South, and it’s sold out. We’re playing CB South, and it’s going to be a great game. Somehow we convince Buff Radick, the AD over there, to let us play our entrance music like pro wrestlers. I didn’t see it the first time, but this time I go out, and Sibel does it again, but this time in front of 3,500 people, and he blows the whole thing to ribbons. His act was so strong, and he got both sides of the bleachers going. He was just great motivationally in the way that you can see him now.”
These days Sciolla and Sibel are peers, both manning the sidelines of programs that rose to the top of District One 6A.
Sciolla is the seasoned veteran with a resume a mile long that includes successful stints on the boys’ side at Pennsbury (seven SOL titles), Bristol and Conwell Egan (Two District 12 2AA titles and a PIAA 2AA state title). The fortunes of the Pennsbury girls’ program improved immediately when he took over the helm three years ago.
Sibel is a rookie coach, inheriting a West program that boasted its share of talent.
“He wanted the West job,” Sciolla said. “I have had a lot of former players who are coaches, but I never had anyone who had a dream job and got that dream job.
“West was his dream job. When it opened up, we spent a lot of time preparing for it. The funniest thing was I wanted him more than anything to get it while at the same time knowing he was going to be making my life really hard.”
Sibel, an English teacher at Tohickon Middle School, was drawn in by Central Bucks West’s rich history in athletics.
“My dad was a football player at Pennsbury, and he always talked about playing against (coach Mike) Pettine and how awesome a coach he was,” Sibel said. “It was one of those things with teaching in the district, knowing the girls and knowing the program and knowing athletics here, it was something I wanted to be a part of.
“I always wanted to be in black and gold. To have that opportunity – Frank was one of the first people I called. He helped me get my resume done that night three weeks before the job was posted. He helped me get things in order. This really is my dream job, this is everything I ever wanted.”
Sibel and Sciolla actually coached together on the AAU circuit, coaching the Mid-Atlantic Magic in 2018. So it wasn’t all that surprising that the Falcons and Bucks had an informal pick-up game a week before tryouts last fall.
“I got the girls together afterwards, and I said, ‘Girls, when we are playing the district final, remember this day’ - jokingly, of course,” Sciolla said.
Sciolla’s off-the-cuff comment became a reality. The two teams met in the District One 6A title game at Temple University. The Bucks earned a 42-38 win over the young Falcons. It was the second meeting between the two teams, who also met in the SOL Tournament semifinals. West won both meetings.
Creating a culture
While there’s no mistaking the similarities between the two coaches, there are also decided similarities between the two teams. Talk to players from either side, and they talk about the special camaraderie their respective teams share.
“You have all different types of girls, all different grades, and team bonding is one of the major keys to becoming a good program because you have to know the girls in and out,” Pennsbury senior Mary Miller said. “The majority of their friends don’t get to see the side of them when they’re playing sports. You know their strengths, their weaknesses, everything. Ultimately, you need trust, and I trust everyone on my team.”
“We’re all so close - everyone is very comfortable around each other,” West senior Maddie Burke said. “We all make each other laugh, we make each other smile. At practice, on the bus, in the locker room, it’s just a great environment to be around. We all just love each other a lot.
“There are no cliques. It’s just all of us having such a fun time together. It’s fun to be around everybody, and there’s that trust. It’s not like I want to do it for me or I want to do it for my parents or whatever. I want to do it to make my teammates happy. I want to celebrate with everyone after – it’s so fun.”
Miller came on board the same year as Sciolla. She has seen the program grow into something that is bigger than just Pennsbury basketball. The team has created a special bond with the community and has a unique relationship with Holy Family’s successful CYO team.
“They come to every single one of our games, and we support them,” Miller said. “We have summer programs – we ran morning clinics last year. I train a few girls that are younger, and I go to their games. You build a connection with them, and it’s so cool that they look up to you.
“Growing up, I wasn’t tied in with the high school at all. It was basically a boys’ world then. Now the tides have changed. The turning point was when the little boys came up to me to sign their posters after the Neshaminy game. It was awesome.”
Developing a bond with the community has always been a focus for Sciolla-coached teams.
“A lot of teams do the pasta party,” the Falcons’ coach said. “And they go to someone’s house for pizza, and we definitely do that. I think the other pieces that are important – for us, it’s the community connection. Holy Family won their region. They come to every one of our games no matter where we play. Our girls reciprocate that.
“My varsity team came and watched my son’s playoff travel game. They were hilarious. There’s never been a more boisterous sixth grade travel squad. They came together, and they were supportive. Obviously, the winning helps without a question, but I think the other thing is they understand this journey they’ve been on, and they just want to keep it going.”
Pennsbury has the unusual dynamic of Sciolla coaching his daughter, sophomore Ava Sciolla, who leads the team in scoring and rebounding. If it seems as though that might create tension, guess again.
“It works,” Miller said. “He doesn’t treat her like they’re family during practice. He treats her like she’s a player, and she treats him like he’s a coach. We don’t have the typical drama on the team like – oh, coach’s daughter. That’s not the case in our program.
“It’s a team effort. No jealousy. We’re very unselfish. I think since we all trust each other and have great bonds that it just works. Why be jealous when you can just play and have fun. It’s a team effort because not one person can get you to a place, but a team can.”
At West, Sibel inherited a team that had not lived up to expectations in recent years but this year captured the SOL Continental Conference, SOL Tournament and District One 6A titles.
“This season has been amazing, it’s been so fun,” Burke said. “There’s no stress.
“(Coach Sibel) comes into practice every day – no matter what kind of day he’s had, you couldn’t tell. He’s always energetic, he’s always asking how everybody’s day is, he always has a smile on his face. He’s always upbeat and happy, and it spreads.”
Both coaches understand the importance of relationships.
“You’re spending so much time with each other and you’re competing against each other and you’re constantly trying to bring out the best in each other – that’s the staple of a good team,” Sibel said. “I think when you start to create that, you create a common respect.
“When you have that common respect, you build stronger relationships and stronger friendships. That’s something we always had at Pennsbury. We were always competing, we were always trying to get the best out of each other, but we always did it together with common goals.
“I’ve tried to take those ideals that were instilled in me and provide those same ideals with this team. I couldn’t have asked for a better group. They’re absolutely incredible kids aside from players as well. I’m really fortunate to have such amazing kids.”
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