Decade’s best No. 9: Mike Mussina helped spark turnaround for Montoursville’s boys basketball team
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the latest in a series looking back at the top 10 boys basketball teams, coaches, games and players from last decade
It was a long process. Improvement was made each year, but the journey remained difficult and earning the prize uncertain at times.
And that was just the path Mike Mussina took toward reaching the Baseball Hall of Fame.
That might have felt like a cakewalk compared to the challenge facing Mussina when he became Montoursville’s coach prior to the 2013-14 season. Montoursville had endured five straight losing seasons before Mussina arrived and had enjoyed just one winning season in the last 16 years. The last playoff victory was in 2006 and Montoursville had not won a district championship since 1985.
It felt like the distance between Montoursville and a district championship could be measured in light years at that point. But gradually, Mussina, his staff and his players started turning things around. By year No. 3 they were in the district semifinals. And by 2018, what once seemed impossible had become reality. Montoursville captured that elusive district championship.
Montoursville has continued that upward climb the past two seasons, winning another district title last winter, while going 21-5, its best record since 1991. Montoursville also reached states for a third straight year, something which had not happened since 1985. The 2020 campaign was not included since this is a look at the previous decade, but even taking that away, Mussina earned this spot by helping fuel one of the area’s more recent remarkable turnarounds.
“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 early in his first season. “Maybe they’ll learn something and they’ll be better people when they get out of school.”
It has not been all basketball in Mussina’s seven seasons. It has been learning on and off the court. But make no mistake, the Hall of Fame pitcher remains an intense competitor and that competitiveness has rubbed of on his teams, helping Montoursville become one of the district’s premier programs.
Mussina inherited a five-win team which graduated most of its contributors. Montoursville played hard and learned, but went 2-20. The Warriors improved to 5-17 a year later and then the breakthrough came in 2016. Everything changed that year as Montoursville went 13-11 and recorded its first winning record in eight years. The Warriors have not missed the playoffs since.
The Warriors were learning to win and hurdled another key obstacle when they went on the road as the No. 6 seed and stunned No. 3 Shikellamy, 51-46 in the district quarterfinals. It was not just the program’s first playoff win in 10 years, but more important, a sign to all the younger groups. Success breeds success and that 2016 team opened a lot of windows which future teams kept jumping through.
“What we’re doing is not just about today or yesterday or the next game. It’s about the whole journey of the program from the seniors to the elementary school,” Mussina said following the Shikellamy win. “We’re trying to grow young men here and this is one of the experiences that will help them grow.”
Two years later Montoursville grew into district champions.
The Warriors returned just one starter from a 2017 playoff qualifier, but adopted a style which has helped it flourish over the last three years. This was a team in every sense of the word. Whoever Mussina put on the court was a threat. Montoursville was strong inside and outside and featured some of the district’s best passing. The offense was methodical, the team well-coached resilient and Montoursville went 19-7. The Warriors won three straight hard-fought playoff games and played a flawless second half in the final, rallying past Mifflinburg, 46-32, and winning its first district championship since Mussina’s sophomore year of 1985. A program that started at the bottom was now perched atop of the District 4 Class AAAA world.
“We’ve had very few opportunities for this program in the last 33 years.” Mussina said afterward, deflecting praise to his players and assistant coaches Eric Wise and Mark Mussina. “It’s been so long and I’m proud of these guys and what the staff has been able to do, giving these guys opportunities to do all the things it takes to give the kids what they need. These guys provide it and because of that we’ve been able to get to this point.”
“Nobody believed in us except us. That was all that mattered,” point guard Owen Kiess said. “Our coaches believed in us and we believed in each other. Now we have the gold and that means everything.”
Some might have thought this championship was the culmination of five years of growth. It really was just the beginning. Mussina again had to replace four starters in 2019, but strong feeder and junior high systems helped shape the next group of strong players. Mussina and his staff coached them up, they quickly learned on the fly, peaked again at the right time and returned to the state tournament. Along the way, Montoursville again won 19 games and stunned eventual district champion Danville in the HAC Tournament semifinals, reaching that tournament for the first time.
The previous year had not been a one-year wonder. This was becoming a cycle. Players were growing accustomed to success and confidently were taking the court. It marked a complete culture reversal from where the program was before Mussina took over.
“It’s really great. We haven’t done this (reach consecutive state tournaments) in a long time. It’s just a great opportunity,” point guard Dillon Young said following a state-qualifying win against Mifflinburg. “I think our program is trending up. We have great coaches. They know what they’re talking about. They’re just great guys.”
Montoursville remained a great team last season, overcoming a series of injuries and captured another district championship, this time also winning the program’s first state tournament game since 1985. Montoursville is a champion again and the program continues trending up.
“All I can do is walk around here and teach them at practice, but they have to step between the lines and win the game,” Mussina said. “You’re going to have bad breaks, get bad calls and get some bad luck, but we kept fighting and we did something that was unexpected. That makes it special.”