Coaching continuum

From left: Mike Gullo, Aaron Panczyk, Ron Wilcher, and Steve Gibbs combine their talents and experience to lead Mt. Lebanon High School’s boys soccer team.

Because they are longtime friends, Aaron Panczyk, Steve Gibbs and Ron Wilcher can enjoy getting together for dinner, maybe a beer, and talking about things other than soccer. But it’s understandable that the sport is what binds them.

They are main cogs in a fairly tight playing and coaching arc stretching back to 1972, attached to a highly successful Mt. Lebanon High School boys soccer program.

The late John Wilcher was the program’s founding father and initial coach. Ron, his son, succeeded him and reigned for 31 years. Bill Purz took over in 2016, then Panczyk in 2020. With an assist from Gibbs, they have been a part of or overseen 10 WPIAL titles, one state title and one second-place finish in the state.

These days, Panczyk’s staff includes Gibbs as one of the assistants and a former teammate as the two graduated from Lebo in 1995, and Wilcher as a volunteer assistant. Mike Gullo is also on the coaching staff.

“Growing up in Mt. Lebanon, I’ve known Coach Wilcher since going to his camps when I was probably 8, 9, 10,” Panczyk said. “I was ballboying when Ron was just the assistant coach to his dad. So I’ve been involved in or around the program in some way, shape or form since, like, 1984 or ’85.”

Panczyk was the Lebo freshman coach before he coached at Seton LaSalle for six years, then returned to Lebo to join the staff of a team that won the 2009 WPIAL title.

Under Ron Wilcher’s tutelage, Panczyk and Gibbs won a WPIAL title as juniors and finished second in the league as seniors.

Mike Gullo

“There are certainly moments where we reminisce a little bit,” Gibbs said. “It’s funny how we might have slightly different memories of the way things happened. I think soccer is a big part of each of our lives, so we’re certainly talking about things like international soccer. We’re talking about strategy and things that we’ve seen, things that we might want to implement. It’s just part of daily discussions.

“We’ll also get together socially. Aaron and I have been really close friends since the beginning of my ninth-grade year.”

The three have spread out a little since Panczyk and Gibbs patrolled the pitch for Ron Wilcher as defenders. Panczyk, of Parkview, still lives in Mt. Lebanon. Wilcher lives in South Fayette. And Gibbs jokes that “our dirty little secret is that we’re actually in (athletic rival Upper) St. Clair.”

Looking back, Wilcher isn’t surprised Panczyk, who owns a screen printing business, and Gibbs, a lawyer, were drawn to coaching soccer.

“Back (when they were in high school) they both trained very hard and they were very curious about the game and some of the tactical things,” said Wilcher, a retired Lebo elementary phys ed teacher who was the Pennsylvania Soccer Coaches Association Honor Award recipient in 2021. His record as head coach was 477-184-50, and he joins his father in the Pennsylvania Soccer Coaching Hall of Fame.

Former soccer teammates Aaron Pancyk and Steve Gibbs now coach the team, with the help of their old coach, Ron Wilcher.

Wilcher recalled that “Aaron played more of a midfielder, more of an attacking player, when he was a sophomore, then as a junior when he came to camp I sort of said to him off the cuff, ‘Hey, you’re going to be our central defender.’ He had very good pace and was very aggressive and he just had that attribute, and we had lost our sweeper back from the year before. So he stepped in as a junior and started all the games for us. And Steve was just a natural defender. He had good size, great header of the ball, very, very good technical feet.

“I love being back working with Aaron and Steve, who have an idea of the rich tradition.”

While Panczyk got into coaching not long after high school, Gibbs stayed involved playing in adult leagues and coaching at the youth level. Gibbs lived in New York for several years, moving back about nine years ago, but he always returned for the alumni game Wilcher ran.

Panczyk and Gibbs are part of a group of guys from high school who have gone camping annually—OK, it’s more like glamping these days—for 20-some years. Among the banter could be Panczyk and Gibbs sharing stories from their days as teammates.

The two were part of a team that beat Upper St. Clair in 1993 in the WPIAL final, then fell to North Allegheny in the league final the next fall as seniors after scoring a huge upset over powerhouse Peters Township earlier in the playoffs.

“It’s funny—maybe it’s psychotic in a way—but it’s still something that grinds at me, the fact that we didn’t go back-to-back in those years,” said Panczyk, whose friendship with Gibbs sometimes got intense back then.

“Steve and I were so competitive with one another that as seniors we were thrown out of practice on two separate occasions by Coach Wilcher because we just basically went at each other so hard that we wanted to fight each other,” Panczyk said. “To be able to be friends with somebody that you can get after and compete that hard against and at the end of the day you shake hands, that’s special.”

Photography by Ken Lager