Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Twenty minutes before tip-off, Ryan Van Zelst was feeling all sorts of things.
“Anxious, nervous, excited,” the Penn State-Abington head coach said. “But it’s different [...] it’s an interesting feeling to say the least, I probably can’t put a word to describe it. Probably just ‘indescribable.’”
Adam (left) and Ryan Van Zelst pose for a picture before Tuesday night's game. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
For Van Zelst, a home game against Arcadia was more than just a typical Thanksgiving week non-conference matchup. It was a game he’d been simultaneously looking forward to and dreading for months: one where he’d face off against his twin brother, Adam Van Zelst, Arcadia’s fourth-year head coach.
The game was scheduled before Ryan Van Zelst took over the Abington program over the summer, one neither brother would have scheduled otherwise, and one they both swear never to play again, if they can help it.
But there they were on Tuesday night, pacing down opposite ends of the same sideline for 40 minutes, the rosters on both sides equally aware of what the game meant beyond just a tally mark in the standings. Both coaches insisted it was about the players; the players knew better.
“I know he wants to always make it about us,” PSU-Abington senior Alex Podolski said of his coach, “but we wanted to return the favor for him, because this is a big deal to him.”
The Nittany Lions’ players did that, delivering an 84-77 win for their first-year head coach. It was clearly a bittersweet victory for Ryan Van Zelst — happy his team improved to 3-2 this season, just not thrilled it had to come against his brother’s Knights.
“I’m happy for the guys, and they worked hard all week, we’ve worked hard for this five-game sprint to start the season,” he said. “For me personally, it stinks, because I root for Arcadia harder than anyone, I’m their number one fan; beating them’s tough.
“It’s emotional, as you can imagine.”
It’s been a long journey for the 34-year-old twins to get to this point, having played together at Conwell-Egan and then Albright before going their separate ways. Adam stayed at Albright, where he was an assistant for eight years, before a brief stop at Millersville and then his hiring at Arcadia in 2019; Ryan worked at York College and then Scranton, where he rose over the course of seven years to become associate head coach before leaving to take his first head coaching job.
Adam Van Zelst (foreground) and his brother Ryan coached against each other for the first time as head coaches. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
The two are best friends, close confidants, frequent communicators and collaborators. They cheer on each other’s programs, know all their players and their plays. There are no secrets, and that made what happened Tuesday all the more difficult.
“The one thing where I will say it’s a little bit different is playing against Adam I don’t feel as competitive,” Ryan said. “I lose a little bit of my edge because it’s my brother, it’s my family, it’s my best friend, I love him.
“And to be honest it probably makes me a better coach because it calms me down a lot, I don’t go crazy on the sideline.”
The game, which was competitive throughout, saw PSU-Abington take the lead late midway through the first half and never relinquish it, growing the advantage to double-digits late in the second and then holding on as Arcadia got hot late. Darrion Harris scored 21 points, Podolski added 18 and Brian Randolph 17, which all offset a standout 39-point, 15-rebound effort from Arcadia’s Jalen Watkins.
It was a game between two well-coached teams; both shot over 46% from the floor and the teams combined for 20 turnovers, eight by PSU-Abington, and only 29 fouls, a number of which came intentionally in the final two minutes. The hosts shot 9-of-18 from the 3-point arc, with Podolski going 4-of-5 from deep.
“In the first half it was strange,” Adam Van Zelst said. “The second half it got competitive, because something mattered.”
Despite the lack of students due to Thanksgiving break, there were still a couple hundred fans in attendance, most of them clearly non-partisan watchers. That included multiple members of the Van Zelst family, friends and fellow coaches, plus a few recruits that each had brought out to see the action.
“I pretty much was just rooting for the good plays, the talent,” their mother, Tracy Van Zelst said. “ [I’m] just proud of them and happy that they’re fulfilling their dream and living their lives.”
The post-game interaction was the briefest of embraces, a quick side-hug all that needed to be exchanged.
“Because, this is the thing about being a twin, it’s like being around your best friend all the time,” Ryan Van Zelst said. “I know what he’s thinking and I’d be thinking the same thing, we’re so similar in how we coach and how we interact around people. It’s emotional, and it’s hard.”
Ryan said he’ll do his best not to hold the win over his brother’s head, promising to be a “gracious” winner — but admitted there’s a chance it comes up next summer when the two brothers are enjoying a cold beverage down by the shore.
But that’ll quickly be overridden by the shared appreciation for the places basketball has brought them, from gyms around the country back to one gym, together, the two occupying those two lead chairs on two opposing benches, 40 minutes they hope never to repeat.
“I think it’s pretty amazing,” Adam Van Zelst said. “We’ve really worked our butts off, and I know there’s a lot of assistant coaches out there that grind every day, they’re on the road four or five nights a week, and to finally pay off and be in a spot where we grew up and be in two good institutions where we can win and be competitive in our league, it’s a dream come true, it’s stuff they write books about and make movies about. I’m just happy I have my brother with me, he lives five blocks down the road, so that’s what makes me happiest of all of it.”