Mussina feeling right at home

Many living outside Montoursville view Mike Mussina a similar way. They see him as a former Major League 20-game winner, an all-star, a World Series participant and potential Hall of Famer.

The Montoursville basketball players Mussina now coaches view him a lot differently.

“I would have been in my glory, having a professional athlete as my coach and these guys just look at Mike as a regular dad in the community,” Montoursville assistant coach Mark Molesky said. “You think when he talks your mouth would drop open, but to these kids it’s really no different than a teacher or a friend talking to them.”

That is just the way Mussina likes it. The 18-year Major League veteran did not become Montoursville’s head boys basketball coach for himself. This is all about combining two passions: giving back and sports. Mussina’s playing days ended following his 20-win season in 2008, but he has been coaching various Montoursville sports since then, and now is trying to revive a Montoursville program which has fallen on hard times the last five years.

It is a big challenge. It also is an opportunity to give back to a town he adores while providing life lessons that go beyond basketball. For Mussina, it does not get much better.

“I love coaching. If I didn’t like doing this kind of stuff, I could be doing a whole lot of other things,” Mussina said. “It’s rewarding. It’s nice to get out there and help these kids battle through a growing point in their lives when they have a lot of issues they have to tackle off the court, out of school and in school.”

Mussina, who is on baseball’s Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year, knows all about what his players are experiencing because he has lived it. Before becoming a 270-game winner and seven-time Gold Glove winner, Mussina was a standout three-sport athlete at Montoursville. He is the program’s second all-time leading scorer, trailing only Molesky, and excelled in the classroom as well, earning a scholarship to Stanford. Mussina has experienced the ups and downs that go with the teenage years and he is hoping to ensure his players enjoy mostly the ups as they grow through adolescence.

Make no mistake, Mussina is an intense competitor who loves to win. His rsum speaks volumes. But the four-time American League All-Star sees the big picture, too. High school sports are as much about learning life lessons as they are about winning and losing. That is why Mussina is fully embracing this latest chapter in his life. That is why an 0-6 start with an inexperienced team which lost all five starters from last year’s five-win team does not faze him.

“It can be tough as you go from being a teenager to getting closer to adulthood. They’re not really sure how to handle some of those things and if we can get out here and put them in the right direction a couple times here and there, maybe it will stick a little bit,” Mussina said. “Maybe they’ll learn something and they’ll be better people when they get out of school.”

Mussina coached the Montoursville junior high team the last two years and also helped Molesky coach the high school team when time allowed. Molesky and Mussina first coached together from 1993-96 when both served as assistant coaches during Mussina’s offseasons. Following last season, Molesky told Mussina he would be happy to serve as assistant if Mussina wanted to become the varsity team’s head coach.

If the roles had been reversed, Molesky would have had his reservations. But Mussina did not hesitate. He was ready.

“Mike’s the one that sort of got the ball rolling and got me into it (in 2012) and I initiated the meeting after last season and told him I’d help him and be his assistant,” Molesky said. “I asked him, are you sure you want to coach? Are you sure you don’t want to watch (oldest son) Brycen play?’ But he said he wanted to coach and made the decision.”

He has not regretted it either. While the record is not what Mussina would like, he is enjoying everything else his team is giving him. The Warriors play as hard as anyone and never backed down against District 4 Class A title contender Mansfield on Monday despite trailing 16-3 early in the second quarter. Montoursville pulled within three on four occasions and then cut a double-digit deficit in half during the second half.

The thing is, Montoursville does not play bad basketball. The Warriors ran excellent sets against Mansfield, did get a good job getting open, worked for high-percentage shots and played tenacious defense. They also held their first five opponents to fewer than 60 points.

Mussina and Montoursville want more than moral victories, but these are signs of progress. Mussina knows as well as anyone, nothing great is accomplished without hard work. The work ethic and desire is there and that provides a nice foundation to build everything else around.

“Coach Mussina has to be proud. His kids played really, really hard,” Mansfield coach Kipper Burleigh said. “They were very aggressive and they never quit. They kept answering. We kept pushing the lead back up and they would hit big shots. They kept answering and their team definitely has a lot of upside.”

Mussina knows it, too. The competitive juices are flowing and Mussina is attacking the job as hard as he would the Boston Red Sox lineup. The challenge, the helping out is what makes it fun.

“A month from now if we’re still playing like that I’ll be really proud of them because we have a lot of games between now and then against a lot of good teams and as we’re growing and getting better we’re going to have some speed bumps we’re going to run into,” Mussina said. “We just have to keep moving forward and not look back and not worry about what we can’t control. If the kids can keep that attitude and keep the effort up and keep learning then eventually we’ll be a much better basketball team.”

To so many, Mussina is, and always will be, a sensational baseball player. Come Jan. 8, he might also be a Hall of Famer. Right now, though, Mussina is a full-time basketball coach and he is happy.

There really is no place Mussina would rather be.