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Southern’s coach fondly remembered

Phil Speck

Longtime Southern Huntingdon girls basketball coach and athletic director Phil Speck died Saturday at the age of 62 after a battle with cancer.

“He did things the right way,” Tussey Mountain girls basketball coach Todd Gates said. “That’s why he was so respected. You look at his program, and he built it from within with open gyms, summer leagues and camps. Phil built that program through hard work at Southern Huntingdon.”

Speck coached the Lady Rockets from 1992 until 2012 and had a career record of 416-125 in that span. He served as an assistant coach to Megan Barnett for four years before returning to the head coaching position in 2018.

“He wanted to step away, but once he did, he didn’t know what to do,” Gates said. “He needed it back. It’s kind of like all of us. When we sit and watch a game, we can’t just enjoy it. As a coach, we want to critique everything that happens. That’s what Phil did. He just had that urge to get back into it.”

In Speck’s first year back, Southern Huntingdon went just 7-14, but he led the Lady Rockets to an 11-11 performance and a playoff appearance this season while starting four freshmen.

It seemed as though Speck had the program back on the rise, but he missed the last six weeks of the season while fighting his cancer as acting head coach Ramonda Zinobile stepped in.

“You don’t have a large number of kids to work with at a small school like that,” said Jeff Appleman, who coached against Speck while Appleman coached at Williamsburg. “But he got the most out of what he had year in and year out. He built a great program. The kids had great respect for him, and they continued to develop players. It’s a great tribute to him that a small area like that could produce so many good teams.”

Speck was able to achieve his success despite playing in the same league as the Lady Pirates, who enjoyed an extended run among the best small-school teams in the state.

“We went to camps together a couple years, and I got to know him pretty well,” Appleman said. “He was such a great coach and such a great person. We competed in the same league, and we won most of the games, but they always battled us and were one of our top competitors.”

Even when he was coaching against his top rival on the biggest stage, Speck was still remembered fondly.

“One year, we went down there and they only had one loss. We were undefeated,” Appleman said. “The gym was sold out, and they had closed circuit TV in the gymnasium because so many people wanted to see what happened. It was the biggest game of the year. It turned out to be a really hard loss for them, but at the end of the game he was so gracious.”

Years later, when it was Speck that had the dominant team, he returned the favor to younger coaches.

“The very first Inter-County Conference championship game pitted us two against each other,” Gates said. “They were a powerhouse. We were an up and coming team that hadn’t won anything yet. We played them right down to the wire in a really good game. That’s the first time I really ever had the opportunity to meet Phil, and he was just so supportive to me and our program. He gave me advice after the game on things to do differently to help our program, and from that moment on, we became friends.”

Speck’s teams made it to the PIAA Class 2A semifinals three different times. Southern Huntingdon also won a pair of District 6 titles (1993, 2000), appeared in the title game seven times and won six league titles under Speck.

Speck’s daughter, Jordan, helped her father and the Lady Rockets make the PIAA semifinals in 2009 when Southern Huntingdon finished with a 28-2 record. Following that season, Phil Speck coached his daughter and the Central PA girls team in the Altoona Mirror Classic. Jordan Speck went on to have a successful basketball career at Juniata.

Speck’s interest in the game and those who played it went beyond what happened on the court.

“He was concerned about kids and their development,” Bellwood-Antis coach Jim Swaney said. “If wins came along with that, it was great. But the most important thing for him was the development of the kids. The sports world is a much lesser place without him. He spent his entire life in it, and the girls basketball community is certainly going to be missing an icon.”

Arrangements will be under the direction of the Marin R. Brown Funeral Home in Orbisonia.

“Phil exemplified what one should aspire to attain in life,” said Mick Patkalitsky, who coached against Speck while leading the Moshannon Valley girls basketball team. “He had respect, love commitment, friendship, loyalty and perseverance. As a friend and a coaching colleague, Phil was an inspiration to all who were blessed to have known him.”

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