— PREP BASKETBALL —
By Joe Scalzo
On March 2, as his team was getting ready to play Columbiana for the Division IV district title at South Range High, Lowellville High girls basketball coach Tony Matisi spotted Raiders principal Steve Rohan and complimented him on the school’s facilities.
“So Stevie said, ‘Thanks, why don’t you make it your home? Our girls basketball coach just resigned,’ ” Matisi recalled. “I just laughed and said, ‘Yeah, OK.’
“I sort of put it on the backburner.”
Three weeks later, Rohan called Matisi and said, “By the way, I was serious.”
Matisi was coming off his fifth straight district title and had built one of the area’s best programs over his 15 years with the Rockets. But he was also a few weeks away from having prostate cancer surgery, a procedure he’d been forced to postpone after having emergency heart surgery a year earlier.
Matisi liked the idea of taking a new challenge — while he still could.
“I said, ‘Let me see what’s out there,’ ” he said. “And my wife said go for it, which was big.”
Around that same time, John Cullen was finishing up his third year as Youngstown State’s director of women’s basketball operations. But with Bob Boldon leaving to become Ohio’s next head coach and Cullen itching to get back to coaching, he started looking around.
“There weren’t a lot of [area] jobs open,” said Cullen, who spent 28 years as Canfield’s boys basketball coach before leaving for YSU in 2010. “But I didn’t want to be idle. I wanted to coach. It was refreshing to work at a university but I missed being able to make a difference and do what I was trained to do.”
As Cullen looked around, South Range’s boys basketball opening stuck out. It was close to his house in Canfield. He’d be coaching similar kids to what he had at Canfield. And he was friends with several people in the administration.
“It’s a nice, small community and everyone is very supportive,” said Cullen, who is 28 wins short of 500 for his 37-year prep coaching career. “They don’t have as much talent as some other schools but the kids are receptive to being coached and I think it’s a little bit of a sleeping giant in that division [III].”
On Friday morning, at a special board of education meeting, both Matisi and Cullen were approved as the Raiders’ next basketball coaches.
Matisi had surgery on his prostate earlier this week and is still a little woozy (“I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck,” he said, laughing), but he’s excited about the future.
“They said they got everything [with the cancer surgery], so it’s good to have that behind me,” he said. “I think taking this job had a lot to do with getting sick and just realizing, ‘Hey, you’re not going to be around forever.’
“If it hadn’t been for this diagnosis, I probably would have ended my coaching career in Lowellville.”
Matisi admitted it was tough to tell his players but he’s hopeful his main assistant, Wendall Wagnon, will replace him.
And Matisi can’t wait to work with Cullen.
“It’s going to be like having another assistant,” he said. “He gets involved.”
“I’ll be very happy working with Tony,” Cullen added. “And I’m just looking forward to being able to use my [coaching] gift.
“Everybody has a gift to give and this is mine.”