ELYRIA — Phil Kuchta, who said the desire to coach never left him over the past year, will return to lead the Elyria Catholic boys basketball program, it was announced Tuesday.
“We talked throughout the year and he kept me abreast of how things were going for him on a personal level,” Panthers athletic director Mike Wisnor said. “I think once the season started that hunger to be on the sideline really set in. We talked this afternoon about him taking the position back and I feel it’s something he really wanted to do.”
Kuchta asked for time off last March after being arrested for trying to enter the wrong house while intoxicated, and later pleaded no contest to a disorderly conduct charge. He continued to serve as Elyria Catholic’s physical education and health teacher.
“The thing I’m most thankful for is my very supportive family,” Kuchta said. “My wife and two children … they stood behind me the whole year. I’m also grateful that the Elyria Catholic administration has shown me such compassion and forgiveness. I’m very fortunate to have a second chance to do something I love so much.”
The decision to bring back Kuchta wasn’t a hard one for Wisnor, Elyria Catholic president Andrew Krakowiak or principal Amy Butler.
“At the end of the day, the decision came down to the three of us and it was a unanimous decision,” Wisnor said. “We are all confident in Phil’s abilities.”
Kuchta took over the Panthers program in 2010, but has also been an assistant coach — football, basketball and baseball — at the school and was the baseball coach at Oberlin High. He said it was the first year he hadn’t coached in some capacity since 1998.
“It was a very weird feeling,” Kuchta said. “I learned a lot about the team, I learned a lot about the kids and I learned a lot about myself. I never knew for sure that I’d get the opportunity to coach at Elyria Catholic again, but I prepared throughout the year like I would.”
The school named Kuchta’s varsity assistant Jason Smith the interim head coach last season, and the entire staff hired by Kuchta stayed on during his year off. They are all expected to be back next year for Kuchta’s return, although Smith might be limited.
“I talked to (Smith) two weeks ago and he indicated that regardless of our decision (on Kuchta) that he was unable to come back next year in a head-coaching capacity,” Wisnor said. “His second child was born during the season and he recently took a new job, but we hope he can come back and work with the big men because that’s his specialty.
“I can’t thank Jason Smith enough for what he did for us this year.”
The Panthers shook off a slow start and finished with a winning record (13-12) and a sectional championship — all without one of their best players, center Jeremy Holley, who was injured.
“That was the program’s first winning season in a long time,” Kuchta said. “We also beat Elyria High for just the second time ever, so that was another big milestone.”
Kuchta is hoping the momentum from last year spills over for the next few years, and he has plenty of reasons to believe it will. He was in the bleachers while his son Jacob helped the Panthers freshman team finish with a 21-1 record, and the junior varsity won 14 games last season.
“The future is bright,” Kuchta said. “The thing I learned most while watching the teams this year is that kids at Elyria Catholic play extremely hard, and they work their butts off.”
Kuchta plans to meet with the team immediately after the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s mandated 28-day cool-off period from the end of the previous season — “April 2 … I already know the date,” he said — and begin discussing offseason conditioning, summer ball schedules and next season’s goals.
“I went through my resume while I was at home and saw the priority list that I give to every athlete,” Kuchta said. “No. 1 is God, No. 2 is family, No. 3 is school and No. 4 is athletics. I was able to take that and apply it to my life every day.
“Now I feel I’m ready to jump in with both feet.”