Staying on call: Mattern balances dentistry with coaching

With only one varsity starter returning from last season, it may appear that the Glendale Area High School girls basketball program is facing a rebuilding task.

And if that is indeed the case, there may not be a better person to tackle the challenge than Glendale’s first-year head coach, Kurt Mattern, who is also a licensed dentist.

Mattern, 58, has had a plethora of successful coaching and life experiences from which to draw. Mattern, who grew up in Ligonier and still lives there, has 42 years of overall coaching experience to his credit — beginning with his high school days in the late 1970s, when he served as a YMCA basketball coach teaching the game to youngsters.

“I did volunteer coaching with boys and girls in the third through eighth grades for 12 years when I was in high school, college and even when I was in dental school,” Mattern said. “I’ve always had my hand in (coaching) since the 1970s.”

Mattern has also had a track record of achieving success wherever he has coached. He did so during his 14-year stint as the head boys basketball coach at Ligonier Valley High School, and during his eight-year run as women’s head basketball coach at Penn State Fayette.

“None of the places I’ve gone had a winning program when I took over,” Mattern said. “Before I started at Ligonier, they had not had a winning season in 18 years, and then we had some really good teams and went to the state tournament four times when I was (coach) there in the 1980s and 1990s. One year, we had a 24-2 record.”

The same thing happened with the women’s program at Penn State Fayette, where Mattern started the program from scratch and directed four Pennsylvania State University Athletic Conference championships in his eight seasons as coach.

“I was a good recruiter for the college, and I had some really good players,” Mattern said of his tenure at Penn State Fayette. “A lot of kids from District 6 played for me. I coached a lot of really good athletes and really good kids.”

After leaving his post at Penn State Fayette, Mattern took an assistant coaching job with the St. Vincent College women’s basketball program in Latrobe for three seasons.

Mattern — who had also served as a junior high school boys basketball coach in Greenville, Maine for 10 years — got hooked up with the Glendale job as a matter of convenience.

Mattern has overseen dental care for the inmate population of nearly 2,600 prisoners at the State Correctional Institution at Houtzdale for the past three years. Prior to that, he had his own dental practice in Ligonier.

Weary of the extensive daily travel that involved motoring from his home in Ligonier, to his dental job at SCI Houtzdale, to the St. Vincent campus for his coaching job, and then back to his home in Ligonier, Mattern accepted the Glendale coaching position this past August.

“I was driving 200 miles round-trip every day, and it was kind of wearing me out,” said Mattern, who is married and the father of three three grown children. “I just couldn’t do it any more. Glendale High School is close to the prison, and some of the Glendale players’ parents work at the prison, so I knew some of the kids before I started (at Glendale). That made it an easy transition for me.”

That doesn’t mean that Mattern won’t face his share of obstacles as the new coach of the largely-inexperienced Glendale team, which is winless in its first seven games this season.

“I inherited a team with one player (senior guard Makenzie Lukehart) with varsity experience,” Mattern said. “My goal is to try to win some games and see if we can build this program into something good over the next couple years. We’re working on fundamentals every day, trying to get better as a team.

“We played in a summer league at Windber last year, but softball is so big up here — (Glendale) won a District 6 Class 1A girls title last year in softball — that basketball, it seems to me, has taken a back seat. We have 11 players out (for the basketball team) — not a big total, but more than I was expecting. I’m just trying to get the kids interested and excited about playing basketball again.”

Lukehart, the team’s only player with any varsity experience at the start of this season, believes that Mattern brings a positive approach to the coaching position.

“He pushes us to do our best and he tries to make us better all the time,” Lukehart said. “He’s always very encouraging. I think the whole team enjoys playing for him. He’s never negative about anything. He’s always seeing the positives in our team.”

Mattern’s assistant coach, Nichole Heitsenrether, thinks that he is the perfect man to direct the Lady Vikings.

“I think he’s fantastic — 42 years of coaching, he knows what he is talking about,” Heitsenrether said. “We have a really young team, but he will build them and mold them.

“He’s had a lot of players go on to college basketball, and he’s recruited a lot of players for college,” Heitsenrether said. “I think (the Glendale players) know what he is going to do for them, and they trust him. I think that he is going to do some big things for our little school.”

Engendering trust is a strong suit of Mattern’s personality. Despite working in what most would consider the dangerous environment of a state prison, Mattern said he has never felt the least bit ill at ease.

“The prison administration and staff that I work with are excellent, and the inmates are very respectful toward me and the staff,” Mattern said. “I walk in there in the mornings, and all the inmates say hello to me and my staff.

“I haven’t felt any fear at all. I feel very comfortable walking into work,” Mattern said. “I’m the only dentist for 2,600 inmates. I feel needed every day.”

And he’ll be needed this winter to try to guide Glendale’s team in the right direction.

“I’ve seen a lot of different situations, and all the varied experience has been helpful as I take on different kinds of challenges,” Mattern said. “Basically, I just like to see the team improve as the season goes along. If we’re better at the end of the year than we were at the start of the year, that was a successful year.

“The wins seem to come as a team improves, and I want to make sure that the kids have fun at it, too,” Mattern said. “I don’t want it to be so serious that all the fun goes away from it. I always try to make basketball an enjoyable experience.”