Ninth of a series...
By CHRIS LARICK
In some way or another, Gary Kreilach has always been linked to persons with hall of fame credentials.
It's been that way since his time at Geneva High School, where he played first for Al Bailey and then Bill Koval before his graduation in 1968. Both Bailey and Koval were among the inaugural inductees into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame in 2003. His Eagle teams regularly tangled with the Ashtabula teams coached by Gene Gephart and the Conneaut squads coached by Andy Garcia, two other members of that inaugural ACBF Hall of Fame class.
When he went to Rutgers University, Kreilach ran into several prominent personalities in collegiate basketball. His freshman coach with the Scarlet Knights was future North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano. In three varsity seasons he played before graduating in 1972, his head coaches were Bill Foster, who went on to greater fame at Duke, and Dick Lloyd. Another of the assistant coaches was Dick Vitale. His Scarlet Knights battled Bob Knight's Army teams on a couple occasions.
Kreilach's teammates at Rutgers were pretty impressive, too. They included James Bailey and Phil Sellers. Bob Wenzel, now an expert analyst on CBS basketball broadcasts, was also a teammate, along with Chris Hill, currently the athletic director at the University of Utah.
Now, it's Kreilach's turn to hold hall of fame credentials. That will happen April 6 when he is inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Hall of Fame. Fittingly enough, he will be joined by old Eagle teammate Steve McHugh, several players he battled on the court like Conneaut's Ron Richards and Edgewood's Al Goodwin and rival coach Ed Armstrong of Harbor.
Despite the prominent figures with whom he has been associated, Kreilach finds it a bit amazing to have his name connected with them.
"I think this is tremendous recognition for the players, coach and people I have been associated with, but I never thought this would come around to me," the 58-year-old Kreilach said. "There have been a lot of great players and coaches that have been produced by Ashtabula County. I'm very honored to be in their company."
Just ask some of those rivals about Kreilach, and they'll tell you his credentials are unassailable.
"Gary was definitely a presence inside," Richards said. "He had good size and was very strong. He made quite a combination with Steve McHugh and Larry Cumpston."
"Gary was a great player for Al and Bill," Armstrong said. "He was a big part of some tremendous teams at Geneva. He was also a great young man, a very fine sportsmanlike young man."
Standout St. John player and coach Denny Berrier, who preceded Kreilach as Heralds head coach, remembered him well, too.
"Gary was the best in the low post," he said. "He'd post you up, and you couldn't get around him. He was very physical. I thought life got easier for me when (future Ohio State football star) Mark Debevc decided not to come out for basketball his senior year, but Gary took care of things in the post for Geneva. He always seemed to be in the right place, and he always seemed to be there before you were."
St. John coach and athletic director Don Cannell felt the lash of Kreilach's ability and later drew comfort from his intellect and character.
"The first time we played them Gary's senior year, he scored 38 on us," he said. "I was fuming. I told my kids, ‘Kreilach's not going to get 38 on us the next time.' He didn't. He went for 39. He destroyed us. His knowledge of the game and his ability under the basket were amazing. And Al Bailey always used to talk about what a great kid Gary was.
"When we were looking for a coach to replace Denny, I knew Gary was the guy because of his character. Having seen him play for (Bailey) and (Koval), I wanted him on our side."
His teammates had immense respect for Kreilach, too, even if they worked him over a bit in recreational games.
"Gary was a fantastic athlete," McHugh said. "He had unbelievable hands. I knew if I got the ball into him, he'd usually either score or get fouled or both. He was a tremendous teammate.
"Gary always had a positive attitude. There's never been a better person than Gary. He's so down to earth."
Today, Kreilach and his wife of 29 years, Betsy, live in Booneville, N.Y., where they have lived for 25 years. They have two grown children — Nick, 25, who is a mechanical engineer and works with jet engines for the U.S. government through Pratt and Whitney, and daughter Katie, 22, a standout soccer and volleyball player and pentathlete in track who played four years of volleyball while attending Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y. like her brother. Katie works for IBM. Both children live near Hartford, Conn.
Always lovers of the outdoors, Gary and Betsy have built a new house even farther out in the country than where their children grew up. They are now away from busy highways, although still close enough to town for Gary to keep his job as a junior high science teacher in the Adirondack School System, teaching environmental sciences.
The great outdoors
That love of nature was instilled in Kreilach as a youngster in Geneva, where he often hunted and fished with McHugh and several of his future teammates. His parents, Adele and Nick, who are deceased, raised their family on a large piece of property on Padanarum Road in Geneva Township.
Loving the outdoors helped in developing his love of learning the game on the outdoor court Bailey had erected at Geneva High School.
"I would play all summer long out on that court with Steve McHugh and Larry Cumpston," Kreilach said. "Twice a week, we'd play teams from Jefferson, Conneaut, Madison, Ashtabula and other surrounding communities. It was a tremendous opportunity. Those were the glory days."
All the while, Bailey was keeping a watchful eye on young Kreilach, who grew to 6-foot-3 by the time he was a freshman.
"I think he always encouraged Steve and some of the other guys to try and do what it took to toughen me up and get me ready for when I got up to the high school," Kreilach said.
He also got good training in junior high, especially from Scott Carleton, who was Kreilach's eighth-grade and freshmen coach. He helped prepare Kreilach for splitting time between Koval's JV team and Bailey's varsity squad, where he saw increasing time as his sophomore year moved along.
"I was still kind of green and unsure of myself as a sophomore," he said. "I was playing with guys like Steve, Larry, (Debevc) and Jimmy Boynar. I was in very good company, but I wasn't thrust into anything. They brought me along slowly."
It also showed Kreilach what he needed to do to improve, and he worked feverishly in the summer before his junior year. He helped lead Geneva to a share of the NEC title with Conneaut in 1966-67 and into the district semifinals after a second win over the Spartans. The Eagles lost to Shaw in the district.
"I think it all started to come together around Christmas of my junior year," he said. "I had gained about 20 pounds of muscle and was up to like 6-4 and 205. All that hard work started to come together. I was a lot more confident in my abilities, too."
It wouldn't have been any other way with Bailey.
"Al was a competitor, to say the least," Kreilach said. "He was a very strict disciplinarian in the old Vince Lombardi style.
"He was very much a fundamental coach and always made sure you were in shape. We played a conservative style and emphasized defense with a lot of help. Al had a burning desire to win."
After Kreilach's junior year, Bailey and McHugh left for Duquesne University and Cumpston also graduated. But little changed as Koval took over as head coach, except that Kreilach was now the main man.
"Bill had pretty much the same philosophies as Al," he said. "He was 180 degrees different in attitude from Al, who was a firebrand, but he was just as analytical. I probably worked better under Bill than Al. I wasn't one who had to be motivated.
"It was controlled offense and man-to-man defense. Bill Schultz was our power forward. Keith Beigh, Phil Cusumano and Marty Skidmore were the other starters.
"But I really felt that was my team," Kreilach said. "I think (Koval) had a lot of confidence in my ability and I felt like I was an extension of his coaching, kind of the translator to the other players. I felt he had confidence in my leadership skills. I took that on myself, and I really enjoyed it."
Geneva nearly pulled off a defense of its NEC title in 1967-68, but lost twice to Gephart's Ashtabula team featuring Al Benton, Bill Kaydo and Jerry Lyons that was undefeated in the conference.
"We blew a 13-point lead against them at our place," Kreilach said. "That hurt."
But the Eagles rebounded in the tournament, beating Mentor to advance to district. There, they lost to a Euclid team that reached the state Final Four for coach Harold "Doc" Daugherty behind 6-8 center Al Vilcheck and Al Russ, now the athletic director at Kirtland. Kreilach, who would earn Star Beacon Ashtabula County and NEC Player of the Year honors, played Vilcheck to a standoff with 31 points and 18 rebounds.
It might have seemed a natural for Kreilach to go to Duquesne, and Bailey tried to get him there, but Rutgers won the battle for his services.
"Rutgers was the first school to contact me back when I was a sophomore and just kept in contact," Kreilach said. "I always wanted to be a wildlife biologist, and Rutgers had that program, too. Eventually, I ended up switching to environmental education."
But basketball at Rutgers was a tough go. Always accustomed to being a pivot in high school, at 6-4, he now found himself trying to play forward in college. It was a difficult adjustment.
"Now I had to learn to play facing the basket," he said.
Rutgers made it to the NIT in his freshmen year, but freshmen weren't eligible for varsity ball then. Eventually, he played somewhat at the varsity level, but never cracked the starting lineup with the Scarlet Knights.
Kreilach wouldn't have traded the experiences, though. Working with some of the unique personalities he encountered at Rutgers was interesting.
"(Valvano) and (Vitale) were as excitable then as they are now," he said. "Bob Knight was just as fiery. He was like Al Bailey on steroids.
"I loved playing college basketball and getting to go places like North Carolina and New Mexico. I was probably in the top eight players. It was pretty heady stuff. And it gave me a chance to get my education. I probably would have gone to college anyway, but it would have been a lot tougher."
Kreilach came back to Geneva after graduation from Rutgers and served as Koval's assistant for several years.
"I coached one year of eighth grade, two years with the freshmen and one year with the JVs," Kreilach said. "I got to coach my brother Tim, (future Geneva head coach and athletic director) Brad Ellis, Tony Tersigni and Mike and Tony Hassett. I even had Jay McHugh on the JV team for a while his freshman year before he went up to the varsity."
In 1976, he answered a call from old teammate Hill, who was in Utah. The lure of the great outdoors there was appealing and he took a job as a graduate assistant for Jerry Pimm with the Utes.
"I learned a lot of basketball," Kreilach said. "I enjoyed the skiing and all the other stuff out there, too."
But the desire to play still burned in him, and old Geneva friend Randy Knowles supplied the vehicle in 1977.
"He was trying to promote basketball in Chile and he invited me down there to play," Kreilach said. "We played in Santiago and taught a lot of clinics."
He went back to Utah in the fall of 1977, substitute teaching, then getting a teaching job and JV coaching job at Granger High School for his old college roommate and teammate Hill. During that period, he also met his wife.
But the opportunity to come back home came in 1980, and he took it. With Berrier leaving the St. John job for the insurance business, Cannell used the information he had about Kreilach's playing and coaching background to hire him. He stayeed with the Heralds until 1983.
"When I came to St. John, I had a really good background," Kreilach said. "I was like a sponge absorbing all the stuff (Koval) and Pimm and all those other coaches taught. I knew about man defense, the passing game and how important all the fundamentals were and put it all together. I knew those were winning ingredients."
His first game might have sworn him off the job in a hurry, but he and the Heralds stuck together.
"Our first game was against Conneaut and we were down 41-14 at halftime," Kreilach said. "I went in and told them we had to keep working as hard as we could and try to keep improve.
"I had (current SJP head coach) Tom Penna, who was a junior guard, and a group of hard-working seniors, and we kept at it. We started 2-12, but then we won against Madison in overtime on a Friday and we beat Ashtabula on Saturday in double overtime. Then we got into the sectional and made it to the finals. That was probably the highlight of my whole time at St. John."
But the chance to move closer to Betsy's family in upstate New York drew the couple there in 1983. Their children soon arrived and they grew comfortable there.
Kreilach spent four more years coaching junior high basketball in New York, but he has confined his activities in recent years to helping encourage his son and daughter in their endeavors.
"Nick played soccer in high school and ran cross country his sophomore and junior years in college," he said. "He was also a cyclist out in Boulder, Colo.
"Katie went to state in the pentathlon her sophomore and junior years and finished second and fourth in the class (second-largest schools in New York) state championships. She tied the school record in the high jump, too."
Although he has basically been away from the arena for some time, Kreilach still finds the lessons of basketball very applicable in his profession and in family matters.
"Being in education, I have seen how important teamwork is and that practice is still important," he said. "It prepared me well for my profession. Even at 58 years old, I find that so important because you're going to be working with people for the rest of your life.
"It was all really brought forth when our kids went to school. We tried to make sure they were always part of collaborative groups.
"Sports is great for kids," Kreilach said. "It helps them build confidence and gives them leadership skills. I tried to tell our kids, ‘Don't be followers. Be leaders.' It helps focus your time and teaches values, too.
"I got everything I ever wanted from basketball and everything I ever invested into it."