Shaler players pay tribute to Ruppert
There will likely be a pregame moment of silence, athletic director and interim coach Paul Holzshu said, and undoubtedly, thoughts of Howie Ruppert will be weighing heavily in the minds and hearts of the Shaler Titans players and fans.
But when the Titans' boys' basketball team takes the court tomorrow night for its first game in 10 days, its first home game in two weeks and its Section 3-AAAA opener, don't expect any elaborate production or extravagant, flashy tribute to the man who was Shaler's coach for 11-plus seasons.
Eight days after their coach died of an apparent heart attack in his home at 65, the Titans plan to honor Ruppert's memory in a manner in which no pregame ceremony could: By competing as hard as they possibly can.
"Howie Ruppert would not want anybody fussing or dragging out the process of his passing," Holzshu said. "He would want these kids to be focused on [Central Catholic] and be ready to play.
"As I told the players, if they want to make this season a tribute to Howie Ruppert, the best thing they can do is come prepared physically and mentally to every practice and to every game. Do him the justice of giving him your best effort. That's the biggest tribute they can pay to Howie."
In the week since Ruppert died, Shaler postponed three games, went to a viewing and funeral together as a team, did not practice for four days and finally was able to return to some sense of normalcy when the Titans practiced for the first time in five days on Tuesday -- that is, if "normalcy" is defined as going through drills on the court without their affable and accomplished head coach.
A home game against North Allegheny last Friday and games against Summit Academy (to have been played at Fox Chapel Saturday) and at Butler (Monday) were all postponed.
Holzshu said he was grateful those other schools agreed to that and that he will give those opponents scheduling preference in when to ultimately play the games. No makeup dates had been announced at press time.
But Shaler returns to action at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow -- and against Central Catholic, the reigning WPIAL Class AAAA champion, no less.
"It's going to feel good to play again," team captain Brian Batko said, "but it's definitely going to be bizarre not to have coach Ruppert out on the court with us. No one expected they'd be playing a game under someone other than coach Ruppert this year.
"But we know he'll be watching us. We're going to try to make him proud."
Batko, a senior guard, had known Ruppert for more than a decade because he attended his youth camps since he was in first grade.
When he received a phone call from assistant coach Jason Pirring late last Thursday evening, he figured it was just the coaching staff's way of checking up on the players, making sure they were in bed and getting a good night's rest for what was to be a big game against rival North Allegheny.
Soon, though, Batko was blindsided by the worst. Suddenly, he and his teammates had their focus shifted away from North Allegheny and onto finding their own way to cope.
"I know some guys said they felt like playing the past few days," Batko said.
"Some others didn't even feel like being around basketball at this point. There was so much going on that basketball just seemed so meaningless."
Holzshu, who had been an assistant with the team, was appointed interim head coach, but he said he will share the duties with Pirring.
Holzshu added that no decision will be made about who the coach will be next season until after this season.
Holzshu and Pirring decided to give the players off -- both from practices and games -- through Monday. Holzshu said every player attended at least one of the viewings over the weekend, and the team traveled together from school to the funeral Monday.
Shaler was to return to practice Tuesday, giving the team three full days of workouts before returning to game action.
"It's a difficult week," Holzshu said. "But the one thing I've learned about kids is that they're pretty resilient.
"Us old folk, we have a tendency to hang onto things, but kids are able to bounce back pretty quickly, and I expect our kids to do the same."
The Shaler players have been able to cope, Batko said, by leaning on each other.
"Everyone on the team has always been pretty close, but not to the point where we were always hanging out together and everyone doing stuff together on weekends," Batko said.
"After that happened on Thursday, we all got together on Friday, the whole team, at my house.
Some guys slept over. Then [Monday] after the funeral, we went to another teammate's house together.
"This experience for us, in a way, has led to us getting to know each other a lot better. Sometimes going through something this hard brings people together."