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Palisades' boys basketball team working to steer its way out of 71-game losing streak

(Note: as of 2/4/08, they finished 0-24, which leaves them at 73 straight heading into next

(Note: Palisades' High School is located in Kintnersville, PA 18930 in Bucks County and has 761 students)

Basketball can be played alone, or in smaller groups, but you need 10 players to do it right. To play full-court, five-on-five pickup games. To “run full,” according to the universal language of the playground.

Back when he was in high school, back in the mid-1990s, Josh Kline and a few of his friends would frequently come to Palisades, to the outdoor court outside the high school. They were looking to run. Some days, they could. Most days, they couldn't. Not enough players to run full.

So Kline and his friends would get back in the car and drive to Quakertown, or even to Perkasie. Wherever they could get 10 together and go.

“We did that,” Kline said, “because we knew that there were courts there and there was always a game there.”

*At Palisades, it's safe to say the basketball culture — players from the community getting together, like Kline and his friends used to do back in the day — is virtually non-existent.

“That doesn't happen around here,” said Chris McKinley, a Palisades senior.

The Palisades School District, which covers a large, rural swath across the top of Bucks County, is too spread out, with little to unite the community other than the school. There's also not much of a basketball tradition at Palisades High School. But a host of other factors — from coaching changes to a lack of success that has bred a lack of interest, to the lack of an established feeder program to impress a necessary love for the game at a young age — have conspired to work mightily against Palisades' boys basketball program.

With Saturday's 61-33 loss to Southern Lehigh, the Pirates have now lost 71 consecutive games, a staggering streak of futility that began with the final game of the 2004-05 season. Many of those losses have been by wide margins, with the Pirates losing by an approximate average of 31 points. Should Palisades lose its final two games — Tuesday at home against Salisbury and Friday at Saucon Valley — it will have completed a third consecutive season with an 0-24 record.

According to Bill Gaffey of Pahoops.org, the state record for consecutive losses is 88, set by Mifflinburg from 1972-76. If Palisades keeps going, it will break that record sometime next January.

But those now close to the program, especially first-year coach Michael Viglianti, have a plan in place to not only stop the streak, but maybe even — perish the thought — make the Pirates competitive.

*The notion of turning around a hopeless program at Palisades is not unprecedented.

For nearly 30 years, from the time the sport started at the school in the early 1970s, the Pirates' football program was part-punchline, part-punching bag. In the late-1990s, the team lost more than 30 games in a row. Its lone winning season had come in 1988.

But then Brian Gilbert arrived in 2001, following stints as an assistant in the Allentown area. Brimming with a confidence and a swagger that seemed strikingly out of place in a community so accustomed to losing, Gilbert hit the ground running with a group of hardworking seniors, about whom he said this week he'd “always remember.” The 2001 Pirates won four games — a rapid improvement that generated a fair share of buzz. But the next season, with a much younger core, Palisades opened with a 43-0 loss and limped to a 2-9 finish.

Gilbert, though at times visibly frustrated, stayed the course. As a business teacher, he was in the building, around the players. He was committed to the program for the long haul, and he had a plan. He also never publicly wavered in his commitment, or in his confidence to see it through.

Gilbert's Lazarus act is now old hat. The football Pirates have gone 35-13 over the last four seasons, and in 2007 they won 10 games for the first time and shared their first Colonial League title before winning their first District 11 championship.

“It's not going to happen overnight,” Gilbert said. “We lost kids my first couple years because parents weren't going to drive kids every day to the offseason programs. The big thing is just keeping a consistent coach. They need a coach to stay here and be consistent and work with the offseason programs.”

*When Kline played in the mid-90s, the Pirates had some playoff teams under then-coach Charlie McGarvey, who eventually left in lieu of problems with disgruntled parents, according to Al Wilson, the athletic director at the time.

In 2000-01, Gary Pento guided the team to 10 wins, just missing the playoffs. The program regressed to four wins a year later, after which Pento quit because he wanted more time to watch his son, Drew, who was about to be a junior, play at Pennridge.

Kline, though just 25 at the time, took over for Pento and coached for three seasons. He was then forced to quit when the school board eliminated his job in the athletic department.

Pento said the lack of a consistent feeder program was the Pirates' biggest problem. Kline said it seemed to be a general lack of interest.

“I had a very difficult time getting the kids to play outside the season,” Kline said. “We'd have open gyms. The numbers weren't very high to begin with, but then the students that you did get were just usually multi-sport athletes who weren't very dedicated to basketball.”

Between grades nine through 12, Palisades has 22 boys basketball players this season, according to Rebecca George, the school's athletic director. A Class AAA school by PIAA standards, Palisades is borderline Class AA, so it has far fewer students to draw from than, say, the Central Bucks schools.

But George said the lack of interest is multi-faceted: Many students have cars, and they need to have jobs to pay for them, which limits their time for offseason workouts. In the winter, a lot of students snowboard and ski, and George said the ski club at Palisades has become increasingly popular. Others just prefer to focus on spring or fall sports.

“It's a combination of things that contribute to being unable to retain kids,” George said. “The computer, in this day and age, has taken up a lot of the kids' time.”

Kline's last game was the first in the Pirates' current losing streak. Bryan Bednar, a former assistant coach at Emmaus, followed him. In his first season, a number of players Bednar was counting on decided at the last minute not to play. Then, after it happened again last year, Bednar was asked to resign when the season was just four games old.

At the time, Bednar was surprised. George declined to discuss the situation this week.

Matt Frailey, an assistant coach, finished out the season.

Viglianti was hired in March.

*Viglianti, then 49, knew he had his work cut out for him as soon as he accepted the job, his first as a head coach.

“A lot of people have asked me if I was crazy and said I need a straightjacket,” he said at the time.

Viglianti laughed when reminded of that comment the other day, but quickly added, “I never thought that. I just told you other people thought that.”

A technology teacher at Easton Area High School, Viglianti had been an assistant coach at Easton from 1993-2006 before taking last season off. He did acknowledge, however, that the challenge was more daunting than he thought.

“Yeah, a little bit, sure,” he said. “I thought by now we'd have a couple wins, more close games, although we had some close games. It's better, but it's certainly not where I expected to be after (22) games.”

He's impressed — perhaps even a bit amazed, considering the circumstances — with the attitude of his players. The program has just two seniors — McKinley and Tyler Frederick — and both said they've grown used to the situation.

Asked why several other upperclassmen have quit through the years, Frederick said “they got tired of losing.”

“It's going to be hard if you're not going to win,” Frederick said. “I've been here since the start (of the losing streak), and it doesn't get any easier.”

Viglianti is encountering the same chicken-and-egg conundrum Gilbert once did: He knows winning begets winning, but winning has to start somewhere. What he does understand is that some of that attitude has to take root before players enter high school.

“I don't buy that,” he said when asked about Palisades' lack of a basketball culture being an obstacle. “I think if kids really want to play, they'll find places to play. If kids want it bad enough, they find a way.”

Which begs the question: How do you make them want it bad enough?

“I told my middle school coaches that that's their primary objective, is to get the kids to love to play basketball,” Viglianti said. “If you're a sports fan, or you played a sport, you fell in love with the sport sometime at a very young age. You didn't fall in love with it when you were in high school. That made you want to do the extra things because they didn't even seem like extra things.”

Here's where the plan comes in: The middle school coach is Bob Saltern, an old-school “gym rat,” in Viglianti's words, a man who has coached at bigger schools all over the Lehigh Valley and is a close friend of Viglianti, whom he once coached in junior high.

“He KNOWS basketball,” said Viglianti of Saltern, who also assists with the high school varsity on occasion. “He has a wealth of basketball knowledge.”

Saltern, who is assisted by Andrew Lutz, a college student and a former player at Wilson Area, even came up with a system. With the 27 varsity and junior varsity middle school players, he takes approximately half for each game, while the other half stays behind and practices. Each group then rotates for each game, so each player plays in half the team's games — but the trick is they all get more playing time in those games.

“That was Bob,” Viglianti said. “I said, "Ah, that sounds kind of weird,' but I trust him — and why wouldn't I? But you know how young kids are. If they're going to practice and they're not getting in the game, they get turned off to the sport. We don't want that.”

*Gilbert and Viglianti are cooperating in terms of coordinating workouts for the football players, who make up about half of the basketball roster, and this season Viglianti even had to make cuts, something that hasn't happened in years.

While Viglianti is somewhat frustrated by the program's current lack of progress in the win column, his focus is on the long haul — with an eye on the present.

“We shouldn't still be losing by 20-plus points, and they know that — we shouldn't,” he said. “I'm still coaching for today. You look at the big picture, but you've got to look at today, too. There's still (two) games left, and I'm hoping somewhere in those (two) games, there's a win.”

Dom Cosentino can be reached at (215) 345-3185 or dcosentino@phillyburbs.com.

January 27, 2008 7:00 AM