Jeff Ackermann had seen plenty of talented basketball players in his 13 years as the head coach at Moon Area High School in Western Pennsylvania. That still didn’t fully prepare him for the first time he walked into the Pine-Richland High School gymnasium after taking over as Rams’ head coach three years ago.
Notre Dame quarterback commitment Phil Jurkovec, then a freshman, was working out in an open gym. Ackermann couldn’t look away.
“I had just got the job and I heard about him but I had never seen him before,” Ackermann said. “I had been a head coach for 16 years prior to coming to Pine-Richland and I walked in the gym for the first time and saw him and I was just amazed at how the kid could control his body.”
Jurkovec, now a 6-foot-5, 200-pounder, wasn’t like most other kids his age.
“Running full speed and then jumping in the air, he's not out of control at all,” Ackermann said. “He has total control of his body. A lot of kids, especially big kids when they're younger, are gangly and they can't control themselves. He jumps in the air and he just glides and controls his body the whole time. No matter which position he's in in the air, he's always in control.”
That body control is just one element of Jurkovec’s ability.
His competitiveness, selflessness and leadership helped the Rams win the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League 4A title last winter for the first time in school history.
“What stands out the most about Phil Jurkovec is that he's a fierce competitor,” Ackermann said. “He just loves to compete. The bigger the game, the bigger the atmosphere, the better Phil plays. Phil is all about sharing the basketball even though he's been one of our leading scorers since his freshman year. Normally, somebody who is one of the best players doesn't always want to share the ball, but Phil's the man. Everybody, including him, shares the ball. He's definitely all about sharing the ball and definitely all about the team too. It's never about Phil. It's always about the team.”
A year later Jurkovec played a big role in leading the Rams to a second straight WPIAL title when he scored a team-high 21 points and pulled down 11 rebounds in a 72-61 win over Butler on March 4.
That set up a rematch with Taylor Allderdice High School, the team that knocked the Rams out of the state playoffs last season. That game was originally scheduled for March 15 but was postponed until Thursday due to inclement weather.
With a 25-1 record this season, the Rams are now 46-8 the past two years and Jurkovec has been a key component in that run.
“He truly is an amazing kid, not just on the court, but off the court,” Ackermann said. “He's just a really nice kid. I've never seen him mistreat everybody. He treats everybody the same and doesn't think he's better than anybody else. You think he's got all this greatness to him and he does, but he's just a normal kid.”
In a day when many high school athletes specialize in their sport of choice, Ackermann is relieved to see one of the nation’s top football prospects also play basketball.
The benefits are easy to see.
“Conditioning-wise and hand-eye coordination and running and jumping and being able to jump the ball and everything else he's able to do athletically, the way he moves his body, he has great body control, and basketball helps that,” Ackermann said.