It was the first day of March and the year was 2003.
Steve Antuono was an assistant coach for the Union High boys basketball team, coached by the team’s current boss Mark Stanley.
The Scotties navigated their way to the WPIAL Class 1A championship — as a No. 12 seed. Union would go on and win that game over second-seeded Clairton, 52-48, securing the program’s only WPIAL basketball championship. The Scotties weren’t done, as they reached the PIAA championship, falling to Scotland School, 80-69.
Fast forward to Monday. Antuono is once again on the bench, this time as the head coach of Ellwood City Lincoln (13-4). His Wolverines team enters the WPIAL Class 3A championship game as the No. 11 seed and set to take on top-seeded South Allegheny (17-4) at 5 p.m. at North Allegheny.
“There are similarities in our team and that Union team,” Antuono said. “That ‘03 team, we tied for third (in the section) to get in the playoffs.
“The key to that team, we were playing well at the right time. That’s a big similarity of what we have done, for the last three or four weeks.”
It will be Ellwood City’s first trip to the WPIAL championship game since 1986, a 71-70 loss to Blackhawk. The Wolverines also lost in the 1985 championship game to Beaver Falls, 70-61. Both games were in Class 3A.
Antuono, a 1991 New Castle graduate who was 25 that year for Union’s run to a WPIAL title, noted he learned a great deal on the bench.
“Managing the game. How to run practices, practice plans. Just all of those things that come with it,” Antuono said. “When you’re younger, I think looking back when I was with Mark, you think ‘I can do this’.
“As you go along the journey, you know you need players and you need players to buy into the system. This is all about the kids.”
And Antuono has players that fit that bill.
Joseph Roth, a 6-foot-4 freshman forward/center, is averaging 23.7 points a game in the WPIAL playoffs. His older brother Alexander Roth, a 6-2 junior guard/forward, is contributing over 17 markers a game on the season.
Steve Antuono, a 6-0 junior guard and a son of the coach, nets 18 points a contest on the season for the Wolverines.
“Steve has to be a little more aggressive this game to score,” Coach Antuono said. “We’ve been riding Joey.
“Now Joey doesn’t have that (height) mismatch. He’s met with size and length. Steve, Milo (Sesti) and Alexander will have to be more aggressive.
“We ask our role players to do what we need them to do. Shoot the ball and keep them honest.”
That height disadvantage comes in the form of the Gladiators’ Omar Faulkner, who is listed as a 6-5 senior forward.
“Faulkner is a game changer,” Coach Antuono said. “He’s an inside threat. He’s long and athletic. He will be the biggest kid we have faced to this point.
“If Faulkner gets the ball on the block, we’re in trouble. We have to take good shots and hit the boards.”
Coach Antuono also acknowledged Antonio Epps (6-0, Sr., guard) and his brother Bryce Epps (5-9, So., guard) must be contained.
“They are two very good and aggressive guards,” Coach Antuono said. “They are skilled, they can shoot it and they can drive.
“South Allegheny is a very good basketball team. They’re as advertised. They’re strong all over the court.”
Ellwood City finished 7-3 in Section 1 action. The Wolverines have defeated No. 22 Valley, No. 6 Avonworth, No. Shady Side Academy and No. 2 Neshannock in the playoffs to reach the championship game. All of the games, with the exception of the Valley contest, were played at the opposing team’s gym.
“It took a lot of hard work to get to this point. A lot of gym hours,” Coach Antuono said. “Guys playing their roles. Complete teamwork.
“Nobody cares who is scoring. Our role players have stepped up for us. They have scored when they needed to. The chemistry of the team is great and the kids genuinely like each other.”
Coach Antuono knows it will take a special effort to win the program’s first WPIAL championship.
“We need to take care of the ball. We need to hit the glass. We have to have four really good defensive quarters,” Coach Antuono said. “We’re going to have to play really well to upset this team.”
Ellwood City will start Steve Antuono, Joseph Roth, Alexander Roth, Sesti (5-9, Jr., guard) and Ryan Gibbons (6-1, Sr., F).
South Allegheny, also seeking its initial WPIAL title, will start Faulkner, Bryce Epps, Antonio Epps, Dillon Hines (6-1, Jr., guard) and Ethan Kirkwood (6-1, Jr., guard).