Mike Kopp ~ Allentown Central Catholic

By J.F. Pirro

At 5-foot-7, just about everything that’s important in Rockne Hall Gymnasium towers above Mike Kopp, Allentown Central Catholic High School’s legendary girls basketball coach and the school’s athletic director, especially when he’s in his underground office. There are all those colorful green and gold championship banners hung so high. There’s a volleyball team hard at work. Each player is as tall as a tree compared to Kopp, who dodges a stray volleyball or two. It comes with the territory of a gymnasium.

Kopp’s office hideaway, a cinder block cave that’s about 10 feet long and five feet wide, is underneath the home team bleachers. “It keeps me out of trouble,” he says. ”But I can hear everything, people jumping down the steps, banging on the floor, basketballs bouncing. Sit here long enough, and it sounds like you’re inside a commercial dryer. You get used to it,” Kopp says.

Just like Central Catholic has become used to success in girls basketball. In fact, the Vikettes have not had a losing season since 1948-49. They have won seven state titles, five under Kopp’s charge. That includes four straight titles between 2001-04. There have been 26 league championships (16 under Kopp), 21 district titles (all but one with Kopp) and 11 Eastern Pennsylvania crowns (nine with Kopp).

This winter marks Kopp’s 31st year at Central, though he coached another four years, which included 74 wins at Notre Dame in Bethlehem Township. Overall, he begins this season with an 820-185 record. He has more wins among girls’ coaches than anyone in state history.

Not surprisingly, he’s not concerned about statistics. As athletic director for the last nine years, he has to keep them for everybody. At 58, he’s pledging four more years, but with an uncertain economy, who knows. Any of the numbers, Kopp says, are the least of his concerns. His enjoyment is the game, his girls and his basketball and athletic fraternity. “The kids are the most important,” Kopp says. “They help keep you young.”

If Kopp is tired of anything, it’s the expectations that are always heaped upon him and his teams. “The media is relentless that way. Sometimes it seems as if a championship isn’t enough,” he says. “After that, they want to know how many times you can do it, instead of just focusing on what I like the most: basketball as a great sport.”

Kopp was born in western Pennsylvania in DuBois, about an hour northeast of Pittsburgh, but he played his high school basketball, football and baseball at Notre Dame. He always played against an accepting lot of older players, and can still name every single one of them who converged on Vandeveer Park in Easton. “We all played the game for the right reasons,” he says. “We all wanted the game to be played the right way.”

Kopp went on to Bloomsburg and made the university’s freshman team, then ended his playing career after he missed two-plus weeks with an illness. No worries: anyone who knows athletics knows the best coaches never played the longest, or even at the most elite levels. The best coaches love the game enough to study it, and return to it, so they can share it with others. It’s what Kopp did when he landed at his alma mater, Notre

Dame, for his first job in education. There, Kopp started a boys freshman team. In 1976-77, he became the girls head coach, taking over an already successful program.

Never one to yell, at Notre Dame he learned one of his most important lessons: not to separate the first team from his second team at practice, and to constantly focus on what he observes that’s right rather than wrong.

“It then became easier to make all of the girls feel important, whether they were going to play one minute (in a game) or whether they would play all of the time,” Kopp says. “They really buy into that, and with that mindset you can have a successful year regardless of wins and losses. No matter what, we were going to enjoy the season.”

Winning has become some serious icing on the top of the cake. Central’s girls had already won two state championships before Kopp arrived. Those included the state’s first girls basketball title in 1972-73 when there was still just one classification. In 1977-78, the team won another state title in the only girls classification. By 1986-87, Central Catholic won the first title under Kopp. That year, his girls had one loss, a regular-season Christmas tournament setback to Downingtown, which won the Class 4A title that year. Central Catholic was the 3A champion. For the success, he credits a fabulous Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) feeder system, one he’s never interfered with, and a shared philosophy of making kids feel like they’re part of a greater community. “Our kids who have been successful help make other kids want to come from our elementary schools into our high school,” Kopp says. ”They see the tradition, and they want to be part of it.”

He’s also run the same strategic system all these years, tweaking it only to fit a given year’s players. “Consistency is huge, just huge,” Kopp says. He’s had that in assistant coaches, too, and he’s let them coach the summer programs he coordinates, boosting the experience of his players and staff alike, all the while recharging his own batteries. A list of assistants includes Diana Kocon, Maggie McMenamin, Phil Stanley, Joe Schwindenhammer, Sam Senneca, Tony Magliane, Carol Hudak and Charlie Post. Of course, he’s had outstanding players, too. That lengthy list includes 1,000 point career scorers in Michele Marciniak, Monica McCaffrey, Jackie Adamshick, Courtney Molinaro, Cari-Lynn Piotrowski, Debbi Oraczewski, Kelly Senneca, Becky Guman, J.J. Illes, Jennifer Turczyn and Colleen Nosavitch, who played for Kopp. Others, like Allison Matt, started on three state championship teams. Sara Antolick and Joanie Guman started on two state title teams. Jill Heller holds the career assist record.

As time marched on, success built in stress but the state title run between 2001-04 remains magical. ”It went by so fast, it’s hard to believe,” Kopp says. ”Those girls were so driven in every way.”

But Kopp is smart and modest enough to know that he can’t live in the past. He has a 2010-11 squad to coach, and if anything, he hopes he’s a better coach now than he was a decade ago, or even last year. The Vikettes are a team that lost four seniors he hardly ever took off the court. Still, one returning underclassman, junior Kerry Kinek, was often a player who put Central over the top last year. She’ll be complemented by seniors Haley Smith, Courtney Graff and Jess Wehr. Abbey Guman, Jenna Kocsis and Casey Hollawell round out the key cast members.

“I’ve just always wanted them to be good teammates,” he says. ”If you are, then you can learn the values of respect and tolerance and all those things. When they graduate, I’ve never wanted them to think about me; I want them to think about their teammates, and to feel that sense of belonging. As for me, I still love the game.”

J.F. Pirro has been published in more than 75 magazines and dozens of daily and weekly alternative city newspapers.

Follow @LehighValleyMarketplace on Instagram