PORT ALLEGANY — There will be a new man roaming the sidelines for the Port Allegany High School football program this fall.
Justin Bienkowski, a 10-year assistant with the Gators, is taking over the reins in 2014, replacing Mike Bodamer, who went 59-38 in his nine seasons as head coach, including a trip to the PIAA Class A semifinals in 2012.
“I’ve always wanted to be a head coach,” Bienkowski said. “I have the full support of my family and I’m pumped. I’m taking care of some of the administrative stuff right now, but I’ve already been in contact with several coaches in the area, scheduling 7-on-7s.”
Bienkowski, who served a year under Bob Haskins before Bodamer got the head job, also has the reassurance of knowing that assistants Jason Luther, Nate Zitnik and Chad Saltsman will remain on staff.
Luther is the head coach of the Gators’ basketball team, while Zitnik heads the baseball program and Saltsman is also an assistant wrestling coach.
Bodamer is staying in the fold as well with the junior high program.
“Mike genuinely knows the game inside and out, and he’s a heck of a good coach,” Bienkowski said of Bodamer.
It’s that type of togetherness and camaraderie that has made the process a smooth transition for Bienkowski.
“That was my first question, are you guys going to be around for a while?” Bienkowski said. “When those guys told me they were in, it made it an easy decision. I know what’s going on in one corner of the field with Nate, and the same thing with Chad and Jason. I never have to second-guess what they’re going to do. We all get along and hang out outside of work. I have both the major sports taken care of with those guys and that’s a huge comfort.”
Bienkowski hails from Allegheny Mountain League territory, having grown up in Johnsonburg and played for the Rams, graduating in 1998.
It was there where he developed his love of football, particularly at the high school level.
“I watched in the late ’80s when both Johnsonburg and Port Allegany were in their heyday,” he said. “My brother and I both played for Johnsonburg, and high school football became ingrained in us.”
Port Allegany had a season for the ages in 2012, going 13-0 before losing to eventual state champion Clairton in the state semifinals.
While the players who shattered numerous state and district records on offense have since graduated from that team, including Bodamer’s son Matt, who now plays for Edinboro University, the Gators maintain a solid nucleus of young men after coming off a 3-6 campaign in 2013.
Winning is the expectation, as it is for every team, but Bienkowski made it clear that it’s about so much more than that.
“Everybody wants to win, but I want to preach to the kids to get better every day,” he said. “I’m an attention to detail kind of guy. If you strive to get better every day, things will take care of themselves. Give me two, two-and-a-half hours a day, and we’ll make you better young men and hopefully they can apply that. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the kids are done playing football when they graduate high school, but if they can take those life lessons with them, then we’ve done our job.”
The first-time head coach knows who he is and what he stands for.
And if he ever has any questions, he can always look down the hall.
“Mike and I teach pretty much next door to each other at the high school,” Bienkowski said. “We’ve had a good turn out for sign-ups and the kids are putting the time in. I’m ready to go.”