Former Greater Johnstown boys basketball coach Litwalk dies; remembered as a mentor, father figure and friend

May 7—JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — It's been nearly three decades since Paul Litwalk coached the Greater Johnstown High School boys basketball team, but his impact on the Trojans championship-level program still is evident.

Litwalk died at age 79 Monday night after a prolonged illness. Those who played for him say Litwalk had a profound influence on their lives. That influence has extended to multiple generations of basketball players, even years after Litwalk occupied a spot on the Trojans' bench.

"Coach Litwalk was so well-respected as a head coach," current Greater Johnstown boys coach Ryan Durham said. "What he did for our basketball program, he laid the foundation for everyone else to follow.

"How we do business today and try to uphold the standard — that was started with coach Litwalk and bled into Coach (Dan) Shipman and bled into us. Coach Litwalk is a founding father of Johnstown basketball and he will be missed."

Litwalk coached the Trojans from 1970 through 1997. His teams won 441 games and six District 6 championships.

His 1972-73 team is regarded as perhaps the best in Trojans' hoops history. The lineup included Don Maser, the program's all-time leading scorer for decades and a Division I player at Duquesne University. Pat Cummings, a future 12-year NBA player, was a junior. Ken Horoho Jr., another Division I player at St. Francis University, was the point guard.

Jack Buchan, who went on to play quarterback at Indiana University, provided an inside presence. Gary Shaw, Larry Koval, Jerry Kaharick, Ron Stenger, Pete Molenda and Andy Polca filled the talented roster.

"He had a lot of egos on that team," Horoho said. "He was a young guy still trying to prove himself after taking over for (former coach) Paul Abele. He had to put the pieces together. It wasn't just rolling the balls out on the court. It was a special year. He was a special guy."

'Great memories'

The group won 25 straight games to open the season, including the prestigious War Memorial Invitational Basketball Tournament title with wins over St. John's of Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania top-ranked Chester as a combined 8,044 fans attended.

Johnstown was ranked first in the state during the season and won the District 6 title over Johnstown Vo-Tech in front of a War Memorial crowd of 4,961 fans. But Sharon High School halted an anticipated run to the state final with an upset win.

"We had a reunion in December 2022 and it brought back all of those great memories of that team," said Horoho, a Pittsburgh attorney, of a well-attended gathering in Johnstown. "Paul was a young coach at that point (in 1972-73). All of a sudden, he had put together from the junior high schools a really good basketball team and coaching staff.

"He understood early on, in Don Maser's sophomore and junior years, that he had something, but it was going to take some work."

A 1973 graduate, Maser scored 1,400 points at Greater Johnstown, a mark that stood as the Trojans boys record until Kurt Hoffman surpassed him in 2006. Maser recalled Litwalk as a competitor, a builder, a mentor and friend.

"He was a wonderful coach," Maser said. "When we had our 50th reunion of the War Memorial Tournament win, one thing Paul and I talked about is anybody could have one or two good seasons. I told him he did it over the long haul and had many good seasons.

"In my mind, that's what distinguishes between a good coach and a great coach."

'Father figure'

Litwalk's Trojans won District 6 Class 3A titles in 1972 and 1973.

A nearly two-decade district drought followed, with Greater Johnstown struggling to get past a rival Altoona team that often featured NBA level talent such as Doug West, Mike Iuzzolino and Danny Fortson.

But Litwalk silenced the doubters with a string of District 6 Class 4A crowns in 1992, 1993, 1994 and in his final season in 1997.

Geroy Simon, a three-sport star at Greater Johnstown in the 1990s, went on to a Canadian Football League hall of fame career and currently is the assistant general manager of the Edmonton Elks, who opened training camp on Tuesday. Despite a hectic schedule, Simon reflected on his former hoops coach.

"Coach was like a father figure to so many athletes who came through Johnstown High," Simon said. "He's someone who I valued and hung onto almost every word that he said to me. They say that coaches have just as much influence on a child as the parents. The lessons I learned from Coach Litwalk are some of the reasons why I've had success throughout my life.

"(Lessons such as) Perseverance. Never giving up. Playing with maximum effort. Understanding the assignment and executing the assignment at a high level."

Dan Shipman played for Litwalk from 1985-89 and served as a junior high coach before taking the Trojans head coaching position after Litwalk retired. Shipman led the Trojans varsity team from 1997 to 2004.

"Coach Litwalk not only was instrumental in my development as a young man, a student and a player, he was definitely instrumental in my ability to coach," said Shipman, currently the dean of students at Ringgold High School in Washington County. "Being raised by a single woman in Johnstown, there were people who were instrumental in my growth as a man. He was definitely one of those people."

Johnstown Collegiate Baseball League Commissioner Don Stanton served as a manager and statistician for Litwalk for many years and the two became close friends. Stanton said Litwalk's legacy will stretch beyond wins, losses and championship runs.

"Other than my parents, Paul was one of the most influential people in my life," Stanton said. "I first knew him when I was a bat boy on a team my dad and Paul played on in fast-pitch softball. I had him as a teacher in high school. I also was the basketball manager and kept stats for Paul.

"Just being around him, it was all about doing the right thing. As a role model when I was growing up, Paul was all about doing it the right way, doing the right thing."

'The Standard'

Former Tribune-Democrat sportswriter Sam Ross Jr. fought back tears as he recalled how Litwalk was willing to bench a standout player for missing a practice before a district championship game in order to maintain a team standard.

A March snowstorm made it difficult to get to West Side Elementary, where the Trojans played and practiced during the 1990s. Ross attended the workout to gather information for a preview story.

Litwalk felt that the other players had made it despite the snowstorm, so the team's leading rebounder and second-leading scorer should have, too.

Ross watched as Litwalk told those at the practice that they were going to win the game — and they did, even without a key player.

The next chapter in this story is even more significant. The player who missed the practice and title game returned the next season when Greater Johnstown repeated as champion. On the bus ride home, the player cradled the championship trophy, appreciating the moment and the life lesson learned.

"Paul thought it was better for the program to hold the player accountable even though he was the leading rebounder and the second-leading scorer," Ross said. "You have to make a point with your team, even if it might be a short-term drawback. In the long run it benefits you because the other guys know they're going to be held accountable. That epitomized what he became as a coach. He was in charge and he had one standard for everybody."

The standard still resonates with former players. Both Horoho and Maser are more than 50 years removed from the playing at Johnstown, but still rely on the foundation set in the Trojans gym.

"People like Paul Litwalk don't come around very often," Horoho said. "He had a strong enough personality and a warmth to him, and you trusted him."

That trust extended on and off the basketball court.

"It's like an era has passed," Maser said. "He's had such a really wonderful career, not only as a basketball coach but as a teacher. It's sad to see that end. I know he hasn't coached for a while, but I'll always think of him as my very good high school basketball coach and a terrific person."