Helsel retained as Altoona coach despite some opposition

One after one, supporters came up to give Jill Helsel a hug and offer some words of encouragement.

The Altoona Area High School girls basketball coach looked as though she had just sweated out an overtime win, and that might not have been very far from the truth. As far as victories go, it definitely was that, but perhaps more bittersweet than sweet.

“Oh, I don’t know. Just relieved, happy,” Helsel replied when asked if she could describe her feelings.

Helsel survived not one but two votes of the Altoona Area School Board on Tuesday at the junior high school to retain the position she’s held for the last three years. In the afternoon, the athletic council voted to recommend to the board as a whole that Helsel be hired for another season.

That didn’t mean she’d be back, though. That was only assured early in the evening when the board voted 6-2 in her favor – Skip Dry and Cheryl Rupp voting against.

It wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for Helsel, who had taken the Lady Lions to the District 6 Class AAAA championship game in each of her seasons – winning twice – and compiled a 54-18 record over that span.

It might have been an ugly win, but Helsel will take it.

“You can’t really think about it. You just have to think about your players,” Helsel said, responding to a question about how secure she felt as coach moving forward. “You can’t really think about what-ifs.”

The motives for dissatisfaction with Helsel, a Division I college product at AAHS who played at the end of the Art Taneyhill era, were somewhat vague. Dry, who also voted against recommending her to return as coach, would not comment on his reason.

“I’ll give you the same two words. You can turn that [voice recorder] on all you want. No comment,” Dry said before leaving the meeting. “It’s personnel.”

In the past several weeks, the athletic council has entertained groups both against and for Helsel. Athletic council head Dick Lockard felt at least some of the concerns about Helsel had merit.

“I thought she’s done a good job as the coach, but some of the things that were brought to the board, I questioned, about the language [she used] and stuff like that,” Lockard said. “She denied all that.”

Another issue involved the transfer of two Lady Lions to archrival Hollidaysburg over the summer, including senior Alexia Servello, who started as a junior for the Lady Lions and got a scholarship to play at Shippensburg University, and junior Alexis Palfey, daughter of AAHS teacher and former football coach Tom Palfey; the younger Palfey’s twin sister stayed at Altoona.

Lockard said he felt those transfers were motivated by basketball and not academics. However, he said Helsel answered the charges to his satisfaction.

“She was very professional and answered all the questions we had,” Lockard said.

Helsel described the issues that led to the split vote on Tuesday as “ongoing,” but she said she was surprised that it had gotten to this point.

“I haven’t had any complaints from the athletic director or the school,” Helsel said.

Many players on the current roster and those that had recently graduated showed up on Helsel’s behalf at both meetings, as did a number of their parents and even some grandparents.

“I’ve had huge support from my team, past players, future players, opposing coaches,” Helsel said.

Lockard was asked what message this vote sent about the stability of the girls basketball program.

“I can’t answer for the two people that cast the negative votes,” Lockard said. “All I can say is they must have had reasons for it.”