When Brianna Kearney found out back in ninth grade that Bruce Frycklund was going to be her varsity basketball coach, her reaction wasn't exactly one of joy at learning she'd be mentored by someone who had guided teams to multiple district championships.
In fact, it was quite the opposite.
"I was terrified. It was the first time in my life I was terrified,'' Kearney said with a nervous giggle. "I saw him coach the boys. The first time I ever saw him coach, he threw a chair when we were playing Forest Hills. The first time I met him, I was terrified of him.''
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Bruce Frycklund is in his fourth season as the Penn Cambria girls basketball head coach.
Frycklund disputes that he threw the chair - he contends that he picked it up and put it down forcefully in the same spot before anyone other than Kearney and a few others noticed. But that's beside the point.
Now in his fourth year coaching the Penn Cambria High School girls after nearly three full decades of producing successful boys teams on the hardwood, Frycklund's Lady Panthers have turned their initial fear of him into a reason for PC opponents to be afraid of them.
The Lady Panthers are carrying an 8-4 record into this week. Penn Cambria is on course for its first trip to the playoffs since Frycklund's first season and its first winning campaign since going 18-9 back in 1997-98 under Cheryl Dalton.
It's a far cry from the four wins the Lady Panthers mustered two years ago. This year's win total already has matched that of last year with 10 games left to play.
"The kids have got off to a good start. We're about where I thought we'd be right now. We went out one night against McCort where I didn't think we competed. But every night they come out now and play their hearts out,'' Frycklund said.
Frycklund now is within striking distance of a rare milestone himself: 500 wins. But about 440 of his victories came while leading the boys programs at Cambria Heights, Bishop Carroll and Penn Cambria, where his teams combined to claim six District 6 championships.
Frycklund is on the short list of coaches who have made a successful jump from being a boys head coach to coaching girls - Williamsburg's Don Appleman and Northern Bedford's Jeff Batzel are two others that have done so in the area in recent years. Although it's not quite as pronounced as it was a couple of decades ago, there's still a lingering stigma in some corners among boys coaches about the ever-growing girls game because of the differences in the speed and the athletic ability.
"At first, some of the guys I used to coach with in the Laurel Highlands [Conference] said, 'What are you doing?' It was like, 'Why are you doing this?''' Frycklund recalled. "But the job was open. I had been out for a year. I wanted to try to help bring the program back some. I think we've done that.
"Now they ask, 'What's it like coaching girls.' It's coaching basketball. It's the same thing.''
Frycklund didn't come into girls coaching without any experience. He first got a taste of it while helping Sandy Murphy run her girls basketball camp at Cambria Heights in the 1980s and found many of the preconceptions about differences coaching boys and girls were actually misconceptions.
Frycklund admits there are subtle differences, but some of the biggest actually make his job easier.
"A lot of times, the girls listen better than the guys do, so practices go a little bit smoother,'' Frycklund said. "With guys, you've got to be on their back all the time. You've got to be hammering them all the time. Girls haven't junked their game up the way guys have. Guys see something on TV and they want to go right out there and do it.
"The only thing that's bad about it is that girls will listen so well that sometimes something will break open in the middle of the play and they'll still want to run the play instead of taking what's there.''
Frycklund said he's tried to get around his girls strict attention to detail by stressing fast breaking, making improvisation a more vital part of the overall approach. One of his other goals is to get his girls players to take more shot fakes and drive hard to the basket.
"He puts a lot of time in with us. We ran all summer, working hard. He expects out of us, and we expect the best out of each other, and he finds a way to get the best out of everyone,'' said Kearney, one of Penn Cambria's tri-captains.
Kearney, now a senior who has been coached by Frycklund all four years she's been on the varsity, said Frycklund has put in a great deal of time over the summer - not only with the varsity girls, but the younger players, as well - drilling the fundamentals. Kearney has been coached by both men and women while she was growing up. While she said she generally found women coaches related better to the girls in general, Frycklund was done very well in that respect, too.
"He's very demanding, and we know what he expects from us, but he's also very positive, and he has a lot of fun with us, which also helps,'' Kearney said.
In the almost 30 years since he coached Murphy's camp until he took over the Lady Panthers, Frycklund has seen changes in the girls game.
"When it first started, there weren't too many opportunities for girls. Everyone's got good girls programs now, and they are playing AAU. You have to work now if you want to go on,'' Frycklund said before a game against Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic last Thursday. "This league is terrific. Every night you have to be ready to go. I enjoy the competition.
"What's amazing is, I love watching basketball, but, the last couple of years, I'm turning the guys games off and watching the girls games,'' Frycklund said.
Although Kearney is undecided about continuing playing basketball in college - she is being recruited by several Division III schools but would like to become a surgeon - she intends to stay on the court in some fashion by playing either recreationally or even getting into coaching. She credits Frycklund, who got her involved with AAU basketball, for helping fan the flames of her interest in the sport and thinks she isn't the only girl at Penn Cambria that feels that way.
"There've been growing pains, but we've come a long way since my freshman year,'' Kearney said, "and I think they're going to go a lot farther when I'm gone next year.''