ST. MARYS — Thirty-seven seasons, hundreds of players, 20 District 9 championships and a state title later, Elk County Catholic boys basketball head coach Aaron Straub is still enjoying what he does.
Straub is gearing up for his 38th season at the helm of the Crusaders’ program, but also spent two years as the ECC girls coach, marking this as his 40th season with the school overall.
In that time, he’s had plenty of ups and downs, but he’s still eager to continue coaching, he says.
“I still really enjoy coaching. I really enjoy working with the athletes at our school,” he said. “We have great athletes who work very hard. I also enjoy working with our assistant coaches, and I just still really have a passion for the game.”
That passion has paid its dividends. Straub has earned 828 career wins as the boys coach, placing him fourth all-time in Pennsylvania boys basketball history. He hit the 800 mark during a 70-35 win over Sheffield in January of 2018. In addition, he’s racked up 20 District 9 championships and a state title in 2006.
His successes are still going, too. The Crusaders have posted three undefeated regular seasons in the past four years, and are the reigning D9 champs in Class A.
So what’s the secret to that longevity and success?
It starts with ECC’s youth programs — the Little Dribblers (kindergarten to second grade) and Cavaliers (grades 3-8).
“We’ve been able to maintain consistency in coaching, philosophy and approach over the years… The foundation starts there and develops a love of basketball.”
He added that the parents in the ECC community that sacrifice their time and money and the school itself are crucial to the program’s success.
“The mission is that we’re a faith-focused community, and we really strive to incorporate that faith mission in our basketball program and in the things we do on and off the court,” he said.
“We think that’s very important, so I think that those are the crucial things that have helped us have the success we’ve had.”
And then, with that interest in both the game itself and Elk Catholic’s mission, Straub says he’s had strong buy-in from his players over the years, and has also benefited from being able to keep a lot of his assistants around each season.
“If you don’t have committed players willing to work in the offseason, you won’t enjoy the success we’ve been able to enjoy,” he said. “The other thing is we’ve been able to maintain our assistant coaching staff for a long time, and there’s a lot to be said for that consistency.”
This isn't to say there aren’t challenges that Straub faces, though. The first, he says, is to balance that consistency with keeping things fresh around the program.
To do so, Straub says he and his assistants design practices so that “they don’t become a grind” and try to bring a holistic approach to the program.
“It’s not just about X’s and O’s, but also about team-building and getting the kids to believe in one another,” he said. “We have a saying that good teams have good players, but great teams have great teammates.”
Straub also says he and his coaches adjust their expectations from year to year, and allow the players to set their own goals, rather than the coaches setting goals for the athletes.
“I think one of the big things I’ve learned is each team will take on its own personality,” he said. “Each team enters a year with a different level of talent, different level of commitment and different level of interest.
“And so I think what I’ve learned over the years is you have to, to get the most from each team and each player, you really have to understand where they’re coming from, you have to understand what motivates them, and you have to understand what it is they’re really wanting to accomplish out of the season.”
It isn’t without other challenges, either. Staub says the culture of today’s world is a new hurdle, particularly with the decline of participation in extracurricular activities like basketball. In addition, the area’s loss of population over the years has meant fewer and fewer athletes in each graduating class not only at ECC, but at schools across the state.
“It’s getting tougher and tougher at all schools because culture is changing,” he said. “With social media and gaming and cell phones, it’s a different time. It’s very unique now when kids are able to make that commitment to a season.”
But it’s those athletes that make the commitment that Straub says makes his job worth it.
There have also been some other unique opportunities for the ECC coach over the years. The first was being able to coach his own boys, A.J. (class of 2002) and Doug (class of 2004), while they played for the Crusaders, as well as watching his daughter, Allison, play for the girls team.
“Certainly those are very fond memories,” he said.
In addition, Straub is oftentimes coaching the children of his former players now.
“It’s neat to have that,” he said. “That’s unique and it’s fun. I really enjoy that opportunity.”
And while serving the ECC community for 40 years is commendable enough, Straub also offers his time as the school’s athletic director and as the chairman of District 9.
Balancing that time, he says, can be tricky, but he manages because of the support system — the coaches, parents and administrators — behind him.
“We have a lot of great people at this school that are supportive of those positions and have helped me along in fulfilling those responsibilities,” he said, and added, “(District chairman) is a really big job, and it’s something I take very seriously. But we have great committee members that do a fantastic job.”
And in doing so, it allows Straub to focus as much as he needs to on his duties at ECC, where he says the expectations remain high ahead of the 2019-2020 season, which tips off Friday night at home against Kane.
“The expectations are always to be the best program and best team we’re capable of being,” he said. “We have kids that worked extremely hard over the past eight months getting ready for the season, and that’s going to show. Those kids that have put in the time and effort, that will certainly pay big dividends as we start our season.”