Helsel’s job up for discussion

It appears Altoona Area High School girls basketball coach Jill Helsel is under fire again.

Helsel, who survived a bid to have her removed as Lady Lions coach last year, is expected to be a topic of discussion at Monday’s athletic council meeting, despite the fact that she guided the team to the District 6 Class AAAA championship game in all four years she’s been at the helm. It’s possible that Altoona could open the position at its regular board meeting at the Kimmel Board Room later that evening.

“I think there will be some talk about the basketball position and what direction we’re going to go,” Altoona athletic council chairman Dick Lockard said. “That’s what they tell me. I’ll find out when I get there. I’ve heard rumors that some people are concerned about the basketball position.”

The athletic meeting is scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m. according to Lockard and is open to the public. It will be followed by an executive session meeting, after which the board will reconvene for its regular public meeting.

The reason for Helsel’s possible ouster and who or what might be driving it remains unclear. Lockard said the board met with Helsel along with all of its other winter head coaches at the conclusion of their season and gave no indictation that her job was in jeopardy then.

Since then, though, an underclassman player apparently has decided to transfer to Bishop Guilfoyle. Outgoing transfers were a big part of the rationale last June to dismiss Helsel, but she retained her position by a 6-2 vote of the board – Skip Dry and Cheryl Rupp cast the dissenting votes.

Helsel felt the threat to her job was serious enough that she is receiving counsel from local attorney Wayne Hippo. Hippo describes himself as a lifelong friend who had advised Helsel in the past. His daughter also played for Helsel.

“I’m keeping an eye with what’s going on,” Hippo said. “I honestly don’t know what (the dissatisfaction) could possibly be. I know there was a transfer from the team, but, as I understand it, it was an appropriate transfer and not related to the coach. In fact, to my knowledge, there’s no evidence that it was motivated by any coaching or any reasons to look at Jill.

“There are a couple angry parents, as there always are. But girls basketball in Altoona is just a brutal, brutal sport. You’ve got a lot of good kids going into the mix, and parents are never the appropriate evaluators of their kid’s talent. Coaches have to make tough decisions, and people get upset.”

Although not the state or national power it was in the 1980s and 90s, Altoona has performed well under Helsel’s watch, winning more that two-thirds of its games and a pair of 6-AAAA titles. Three of its players have signed Division I full-scholarship letters-of-intent in that time, and six others have received at least partial scholarships from Division II colleges.

Helsel would not answer questions but read a prepared statement.

“I am proud of my accomplishments in my four years. I am proud of the team and individual accomplishments as the head coach. I’m excited in the direction the program is headed, and I am looking forward to next season. I am not speculating on anything,” Helsel said.

Lockard said Monday’s athletic meeting was originally scheduled primarily to talk to the spring sports coaches. He said after last year’s meeting to help decide Helsel’s future that he was satisfied with her answers and commended her on her professionalism, but he isn’t sure yet what position he’ll take if it comes to a vote again on Monday.

“I really can’t say right now. I’m still doing my homework,” Lockard said. “I have a lot of questions about the position. That’s about all I can say.”

Hippo would not specify what if any legal avenues might be open to Helsel if she was relieved of her position, but he hoped it didn’t get that far.

“I’m truly hopeful that, once the facts get put before everybody, it’s a decision made by common sense and the numbers and that there’s no other inappropriate motivations here,” Hippo said.