There’s technically a new coach at the helm of the Port Allegany football team, but it’ll be a familiar face roaming the Gators sideline again this season.
After stepping down following the 2016 season, then returning as an assistant last year, Justin Bienkowski reapplied for the head-coaching job when 1986 PAHS grad and current Smethport police chief Pat Warnick decided to step away after a two-year stint.
The rest of the staff includes Chad Saltsman (defensive coordinator), Cliff Fillhart (skill positions), Seth Lowery (special teams), Brian Neal (line), and Josh Saltsman (assistant line). Former Gator standouts Matt Bodamer, Nick Budd, Adam Greenman and Brandon Raymo are also helping out, as is longtime head coach Mike Bodamer.
“It’s not anything we’re starting here; it started a long time ago when I first started coaching with Mike and working my way up the ranks,” Bienkowski said at the recent District 9 Media Day event in Ridgway. “It’s just a matter of trying to fine-tune some things, but there’s not a lot of wholesale changes... There’s somebody different at the top on paper, but it’s the same coaches coaching the kids. Our staff is all alumni, or welcomed transplants that have been here long enough like myself and Mike. So really, nothing is changing like you’d expect in another coaching scenario.”
Almost all of the same players are returning, too, which should give the Gators a head start on the season. Port lost just four seniors from last year’s 2-7 campaign, Jared Mahon, Wayne Shelley, Collin Smith, and Issac Smoker, with Mahon and Smoker both missing significant chunks of the season due to injury.
Returning starters are seniors D.J. Michelitsch, Eli Petruzzi, Josh Rees, Montgomery Tanner and juniors Trey Ayers, Dalton Distrola, Derek Kallenborn, Taro Tanaka, and Justin Young. Rees was the Gators’ top rusher last year and Ayers was the starting quarterback, while Michelitsch, Kallenborn, Distrola, and Young all return on the line.
“We learned how to play without him,” Bienkowski said of losing Mahon, perhas the Gators’ best player, in just the third game of the 2018 campaign. “Trey had to throw a little bit more, Josh had to run the ball a little bit more, we got Taro Tanaka involved and Eli Petruzzi. Those kids wouldn’t have gotten involved (if Jared hadn’t gotten hurt), because he would’ve been touching the ball a lot. Thinking progressively to 2019, we’re getting rewarded from the experience those other guys got.
“The guys that are going to touch the ball, Montgomery and Josh and Eli and Taro and Trey — I don’t want to miss anybody — those guys have already experienced running routes, getting handoffs, carrying out fakes. That’s only going to make us better. They know what to expect, the coaches know what to expect. We haven’t been the more experienced team in quite some time. I’ve been telling these guys, ‘Potential, potential, potential.’ What we do with it is up to us.”
The program should also benefit from adding some of the players from last year’s undefeated junior high squad.
“We have a ninth-grade class that’s used to winning. They have some kids that have experienced success on the wrestling mat, the basketball court, the football field, the baseball field. They want to win, they know how to win, and they’re athletic and talented enough to help us. Our goal is to find at least a couple of them that can help us out on Friday nights,” Bienkowski said.
When asked if the time away from the sideline had changed his perspective at all, he said, “Absolutely, positively 100 percent. Yes, we want to win, wins and losses are very important, but they’re so far down the list of importance for me. Developing class kids, kids that are involved in the community, kids that have good high academic standards, kids that aren’t in Mr. Budd’s office for disciplinary reasons, that’s what’s important.
“If we take care of the little things, hand placement, feet placement, having fun, flying around playing football, and we get a win, great! But at the end of the day, if wins and losses were all it was about, then we’re all here for the wrong reasons. I didn’t think like that before 2014. Winning was everything, it didn’t matter what happened.
“We want to be prepared. We want to have our alignment correct, we want to know our cadence, we want to know our play and our execution. And if we do that to the best of our ability, then at the end of the day, if Otto-Eldred or Keystone or those other teams have more points on the scoreboard, we can rest our head on the pillow a lot easier than if we’re living and dying by the W. Make no mistake, we want to win every game we’re in. But at the end of the game, if we have more points, great — as long as we’re doing it the right way.”
Rees and Michelitsch, making their second trip to the Media Day event, talked about what they hope to get out of their senior seasons.
“Honestly, I expect it to be the best season as a team for me,” Rees said. “I’ve started since I was a freshman, and I’ve won four games in my high school career. Even if we don’t win, I still expect to be successful even if it’s not in the win column. Just playing as a team, turning friends into family.”
“Josh and I are in the same place,” Michelitsch added. “We’ve both started since we were freshmen, and the last time we actually had a good winning season was in eighth grade, junior high. We’ve won four games in our whole high school career, but that’s not what matters. This year is what matters, progressing as a team, as a player and as a person.”
Listening to his players speak, Bienkowski nodded in agreement.
“I would agree with those guys wholeheartedly,” he said. “I’ve preached family since I took over. You’re not going to go do what you can do in anything, in any way, shape or form, if the guy next to you doesn’t have your back and you don’t have his back. We’ve always tried to preach to compete on the field, but when you’re off the field, you’re a good kid in the hallway, a good kid to your teachers, a good kid in the weight room, a good kid to your parents.
“Do it together, do it as one. And most importantly, that ‘GATORS’ across your chest means more than any reward, any award, any recognition you could receive. That’s what I want these guys to play for, the six letters across their chest. That’s my goal. No more, no less.”
Aug. 23: Otto-Eldred, 7 p.m.
Aug. 30: at Keystone, 7 p.m.
Sept. 6: Smethport, 7 p.m.
Sept. 13: Elk County Catholic, 7 p.m.
Sept. 20: at Coudersport, 7 p.m.
Sept. 28: Union-AC Valley, 1:30 p.m. (HOMECOMING)
Oct. 5: at Sheffield, 1:30 p.m.
Oct. 18: at Cameron County, 7 p.m.