Jeff Anastasia and Randy Samuelson have a lot in common.
They coach basketball at Olean High School. Anastasia runs the boys team while Samuelson coaches the girls squad.
Both have enjoyed watching their teams get off to great starts this season. Their teams are unbeaten and on top of this week’s Buffalo News Small School polls. The boys are 11-0, while the girls are 10-0.
But there’s another bond that connects them. “We both teach driver education,” Samuelson said.
Coaching basketball games, even when they are part of a long winning streak, can’t quite match the thrill ride of teaching high school students how to drive.
“One time, I told a girl to go straight and she made a right turn,” Anastasia said. “She’s got her foot on the accelerator, and I’m hitting the brake, so we’re bunny-hopping along. I about had a heart attack. My one buddy was going into church for some holy water, and he asked if I wanted a gallon of it.
“I enjoy teaching driver ed. The car part gives me some gray hairs, but I love teaching in the classroom. I like to see how the kids come along. It’s fun to see the kids driving around afterwards.”
There have been some close calls but no accidents this season for both teams. They certainly are playing like they could make some noise in the postseason in late February and early March.
It’s rare but not unheard of for both the boys and girls basketball teams from one school to be among the best in their region. Jamestown and Williamsville South had its respective teams win Section VI championships last season.
But for both teams to go into January unbeaten ...
“It’s nice,” Samuelson said. “The boys encourage us. The girls encourage them. It’s nice when good things happen.”
Ask Samuelson why Anastasia is such a good coach and the answer is surprising.
“He has a great memory,” Samuelson said. “He’s relentless at preparing. A quick example:
“One year, Allegany was very, very good. I was watching practice and he diagrammed every single play Allegany ran and said, ‘This is going to happen.’ Then in the game, in a critical time, Allegany had an out-of-bounds play, and Olean took the play right away from them.
“He’s very black and white. He doesn’t care who you are. If you’re the leading scorer or the last player on the bench, he’ll treat you the same – very honest, up front, demanding.”
Then ask Anastasia about Samuelson’s coaching, and a different type of praise comes out.
“He presses. We don’t press as much,” Anastasia said. “I thought he did a really good job at the IAABO Tournament at St. Bonaventure. Allegany-Limestone had some really tall girls, and their size hurt in the first half. But the press wore them down. ... I thought the tactics went really well.”
Olean has a reputation as a basketball town, but that’s mostly because of the university just up the street. St. Bonaventure has a long tradition in the sport, and both coaches try to tap into the fact that a high level of collegiate play is available so close by.
Both Bona teams have started the Atlantic 10 portion of their schedule with win streaks. The women have won 14 in a row overall. The men are 12-3 and 4-0 in the A-10.
“I think we’ve had a handful of girls go to games, but not the entire group,” said Samuelson, in his third year as coach of the varsity girls but in his 35th year of coaching. Bona women’s coach Jim “Crowley has been good to us, helping us. I like to watch them. They are competitive.”
“The kids want to see the Bonaventure games,” Anastasia said. “They just want to go. It’s always great. We can reflect on the game – what Marcus Posley did, or what their big men did. What happened at the end of the game, the sets they run. It’s been really good having them in town.”
And in a sport that has a tradition of coaches’ sons playing their dad’s game, Anastasia has two sons of Bona men’s coach Mark Schmidt − Derek and Michael. They are following in the footsteps of brother Nick, who was all-state for Olean in 2013-14.
“I know Mark really well. He does an outstanding job,” Anastasia said. “It’s nice when we talk. I’ll throw things off him. He stays out of it when it comes to his sons. They’ve been great. He and his wife hang around Olean, and they’re tremendous people.”
No two teams are alike, of course, and the biggest difference in the boys and girls squads might be the expectations that they carried into the season. The Olean girls had modest hopes when they first met for practice.
“We lost eight seniors,” Samuelson said. “I thought going in that we had to be good in practice. The kids moving up from JV were taking a big step. So I did not anticipate this. They’re really working hard.
“They are goofy kids – they are funny, they are happy, pleasant to be around. I have not had any disciplinary problems. They all get along and do what we ask them to do.”
Every team needs someone who can step up at important times, but it’s usually not a freshman. That makes Sara Pfeiffer’s outstanding play that much more of a surprise.
“Sara’s a natural-born leader,” Samuelson said about the leading scorer, who is joined on the team by older sister Gabby. “The three seniors have bought into that, appreciated her leadership. She’s got a pleasant personality, but she’s very competitive and people kind of jump on that. It’s a big plus. It’s not just her points, but her leadership has helped us grow a lot.”
Olean’s win in the IAABO Tournament was a big sign of progress, but Samuelson saw an earlier sign that the team was ahead of schedule.
“We beat Southwestern just before Christmas,” he said. “That is a tough place to play. They are well coached. When we beat them on their court, that was a big step. ... I don’t think we’ve hit our peak yet.”
Meanwhile, it seems business as usual for the boys team. The Huskies are coming off their fourth straight Section VI title and eighth in nine years, and they haven’t missed a beat.
“Defense has been our constant,” said Anastasia, who’s in his 29th season but never has been tagged with a losing record. “We’re holding teams to about 43 points per game. We like to get up and down the court. Our passing has been exceptional. I commended our kids. We don’t sugar-coat anything. But I’ve always complimented Olean teams that have passed the ball, and I told them, ‘You guys have been exceptional – making the extra pass, getting the ball to the open man.’ They don’t care who the leading scorer is.”
That has led to a balanced offense. In a recent close win over Fredonia, four players had 11 points each: Jake Cavana, Ben Eckstrom, Elijah Ramadhan and Monty Shoemaker.
“That’s been a key so far,” Anastasia said. “I don’t have a true post player. For the first time in 29 years, I don’t have one. We have guys that can dribble, penetrate, kick it out, and shoot. We’re hitting our shots. We had one game with 11 threes, another one with 12. I hope it continues.”
It’s all added up to two great starts to the season. Coaches being coaches, Anastasia or Samuelson know they haven’t won anything yet. March is still a ways off. But in the meantime, it’s been a warm few weeks for everyone but Olean’s opponents.
“I went out to dinner the weekend after the officials’ IAABO Tournament,” Samuelson said. “I was stopped by nine different people, congratulating me. Some former players came over to the house.
“This is a small-town community, and we have a chance to make a difference here. The general population wants to follow us, and it’s easy to be encouraged by that.”