On the Road to Wilkes
nancy scholz/special to the times news Wilkes University women's basketball coaches, from left, Mark Maholick, Terry Balliet and Chris Heery go over notes prior to a recent game against DeSales University. Heery, a Lehighton native who has been the head coach at Wilkes the last two years, brought the two former area high school basketball head coaches with him.
Willie Nelson's song, "On the Road Again" is so appropriate.
Every day during the season, Chris Heery of Lehighton, Mark Maholick of Mahoning Township, and Terry Balliet of Palmerton get into a car and make their one hour drive to Wilkes University.
"In my car is where we have our coaches' meeting," said second year head coach Heery. "This way we can concentrate on practice and watching film when we get to the gym. We drive to home games and to a lot of away games, too."
The journey for these three coaches who came together to comprise the staff that is beginning to turn around a struggling women's basketball program took several turns onto roads that eventually all converged at Wilkes. It started when Heery and Balliet coached together at a basketball clinic soon after Balliet had left coaching at Palmerton High School to become head coach for Northwestern Lehigh.
"Then I applied for the JV job at Northwestern," said Heery. "There I got to know what a great coach Terry was and also when I got this dream that someday I would like to be the head coach of a Division III program."
After Maholick who grew up in Bethlehem, left two coaching stints in Baltimore County, Maryland, he returned to Pennsylvania where his sons became close friends with two of Heery's four sons.
"While we lived in Maryland, my wife and I were looking to move somewhere. Then we heard my godfather, who was living in my great-grandfather's farmhouse in Mahoning Valley, passed away so we took the opportunity to come back near our roots," said Maholick. "I coached briefly at Lehighton and was filling in at Palmerton when Chris called and asked me to come with him to Wilkes."
Heery, who began his career coaching in the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) in Lehighton, had talked about bringing Balliet and Maholick along if he ever got a head position at the college level.
"My wife saw the opening at Wilkes online. When I got the job I immediately called Terry and Mark and they both said yes without reservation."
Each coach brings a different talent to a Wilkes program that had posted an 8-39 record in the two seasons before Heery arrived.
"When I was an assistant at Muhlenberg, we had the greatest turnaround in NCAA Division III history. We went from 11-14 to 26-3 the next year," said Heery. " I learned so much from head coach Ron Rohn about how to play an up tempo game using all the players, how to play pressure defense and how to excel at the transition game."
Heery's basketball faith in Balliet explains why his friend who has coached since 1975 is respectfully called, "the builder" of programs and players.
"Terry is a great fundamentalist," said Heery. "He knows how to break down the skills of each player and he's a master at teaching footwork and proper angles to the basket for our post players."
Balliet, whose coaching acumen has been gathered from Northwestern and two tenures at Palmerton, has had hip replacements and shoulder operations yet he simply will not retire from the game he loves.
"The best coach I ever saw was Gino Roberts and he did it all from a wheelchair," he said.
Heery loves the attitude Maholick brings to the women of Wilkes.
"Mark stresses the positives with all the individuals on the team," said Heery.
"I also try to teach the players how to trust each other on the court and that isn't always easy.They come from high schools where they were the stars and were relied upon to be the go-to players when the game was on the line. We want them to play team basketball at Wilkes."
Heery says each coach compliments one another during the games.
"Terry evaluates the opponent's offense and defense while Mark works on supporting the strengths of each of our players. I'm pretty laid back on the outside, but that helps me stay focused on our game plan."
Heery also gives much credit to his graduate assistant, Sheila Cook, who played for him at Muhlenberg and joined the staff two years ago. He calls her the "glue" of the program.
"I love working with all the coaches," said Cook. "We have a comfort level with each other and I am having a great experience helping Chris out."
When Heery put together his staff, he invited differences of opinion and didn't want "yes guys" who would just pat him on the back.
"Chris invites our input and he believes in what we have to say," said Maholick.
Heery knew before he had his first practice that to change a culture of losing was not going to be a quick fix. He inherited only seven players and won six games his first season.
"I am fully aware of what it takes to turn around a program and we have to have patience." said Heery. "You can't sell a car if you have no one to sell it to."
Now Heery believes he has the buyers for his "cars." The Lady Colonels, who play in the Freedom Conference of the MAC, currently hold a roster of 16 players. They jump started this season by winning 10 of their first 14 games.
"Since then we have hit some rough spots, but it's not for any other reason than the basketball gods aren't letting the ball fall through the hoop for us. We have been in most games and lost six of them in the final minutes. The other day we lost by six to Eastern, a playoff team, and we shot only nine for 27 from the free throw line."
Maholick, who has taught middle school history in Lehighton for the past seven years, believes that an early season loss to a good DeSales University team was a turning point for the Colonels, who gave up a late lead to the Bulldogs.
"We learn from every loss," said Maholick. "That game sent a message that we needed to know how to close out a good opponent."
And Wilkes did just that against undefeated Scranton.
"First of all, when I took over the program, Scranton had been dropped from the schedule because they had defeated Wilkes 51 straight games," said Heery. "I wanted to play them again. Our staff did a fantastic job in helping our team shut down their terrific post player and we beat them by double figures."
For the 68 year-old Balliet, who also helped when Heery was an assistant coach at Cedar Crest for five years, the competitive fires still burn strongly.
"My wife, Eileen, puts me in my place when I get all worked up about the games. She says no matter what age they are, they're still just little girls and it's only a game they are playing."
Though Maholick coached only boys before Wilkes, Heery and Balliet recognize the challenges of coaching college women. They realize that their players are independent young adults, which is a stark contrast to their approach they had with high school girls. Heery, who has only coached the female side of the game, believes that whether it be high school or college, the women's game is the purist of team sports.
"The men's game is often dominated by a few incredibly skilled athletes and although the women are fast and athletic as well, their game is more about teamwork and execution. That's also why coaching has a greater impact on the outcomes of the games."
The future of Wilkes' basketball is promising. The staff contends that recruiting will bring in more talent from successful high school programs and transfers from good college teams.
From Lehighton to Maryland to Palmerton to Wilkes-Barre, three men have solidified a coaching fraternity that has Wilkes University on the road to success.
To quote Willie Nelson from his song: "And I can't wait to get on the road again … We're the best of friends insisting that the world keep turning our way."
Within the next few years, Heery, Balliet, and Maholick hope to steer their team down the road to the NCAA playoffs.
And when the three coaches get to their away games and the GPS says, "You have arrived at your destination," these words will have an entirely different meaning.