COAL CITY – When it was time to win, it was time for Austin Pullara to step forward.
Pullara, a senior forward for Coal City’s boys basketball team, was the focus of his team’s attack this season, and he helped lead the Coalers to a 20-12 record and the ninth regional championship in the school’s long history. According to IHSA.org, the Coalers have been playing boys basketball since 1917, a span of 103 years. It was the first regional crown for the Coalers since 2013 and the first 20-win season since 2003.
Pullara created match-up problems for most teams the Coalers faced. Standing 6-foot-2, he was big and strong enough to overpower guards that defended him and was quick enough with the dribble to get around bigger defenders. And when teams tried to pack in a zone to stop his inside game, he developed a 3-point shot that went over it.
Despite gathering most of the attention from opponents’ game plans, he averaged 18.9 points per game, to go along with 6.5 rebounds and 2.6 assists per contest. Plus, he was at his best when it mattered most.
“Besides his impressive stats, Austin was a clutch player who found a way to lead us to victory in close games,” Coal City coach Glenn Pacek said. “Two examples of this are [first,] against Seneca [when] we were down 10 at halftime. Austin gets two steals for easy layups in the third quarter, and we are down four going into the final period. Austin had eight steals in the fourth quarter, and we ended up winning by eight. Second, in the regional championship against Pontiac, we were trying to hold onto a lead in the second half. Austin went 4 of 5 from the foul line in the third quarter, but our lead shrunk from 13 to seven. In the fourth quarter, he went 6 for 6 from the line and we held on to win by two.
“This clutch foul shooting in the regional was done by a player who on the year made 66 out of 106 attempts: a 62.3% foul shooter.”
Pullara had 25 points in the regional championship game, a demonstration of how he came up big when his team needed it. In the season-ending Class 2A sectional loss to Bismarck-Henning-Rossville-Alvin, he had a team-high 18 points. His season high of 36 came in a game against eventual ICE champion Plano, and he had 12 points and six rebounds in a win over Class 4A Bradley-Bourbonnais.
He had a slow start to the year due to an injury suffered during football season, but he didn’t take long to get up to speed.
“I broke my hand in football and couldn’t do much at the start of the year,” he said. “But I knew every team was going to be watching me close, and I knew I had to be a leader as a senior this year. It seemed like every team put their best player on me, but that’s all right. I love that. I am a competitor. I want to see their best.
“Big games are fun. There’s a lot of energy in the gym and I like to put the team on my back sometimes. The good thing about this team was that I didn’t have to carry the load all the time. We had a lot of guys who could score, both inside and outside. If a team was double-teaming me, I knew that someone else who could score would be open and I would find them. That left me with more one-on-one situations.”
Once in a one-on-one situation, Pullara usually had the advantage. He could post up, drive or step out to hit the 3. Many times, his drives ended with a floater from the lane.
“That was something I just learned in street ball games with my buddies,” he said. “It definitely came in handy.”
Those buddies were teammates he had played with since grade school.
“We had a lot of fun,” he said about the Coaler team. “There were no arguments. We all play multiple sports together, so we know each other real well. It’s going to be tough to not play with them any more.”
Two wins that stood out most for Pullara during the season were against I-55 rival Pontiac and another against a much larger school.
“The two games against Pontiac stand out,” he said. “The first one at their place, we were down, but we were able to come back and get a win. Then, the regional championship was huge. It was only the ninth regional title ever for our school, so that was probably the best game we played all year. Another one was Bradley-Bourbonnais. They are a big school and well-coached. We played well against them, too.”
Pullara, who is also a standout in both football and baseball, plans to major in civil engineering in college. His athletic plans aren’t so clear cut.
“I have talked to University of Iowa about maybe walking on to the baseball team,” he said. “And, I have visited University of Wisconsin-Plattville. I might be able to play both sports there. I would probably try both the first year and make a decision after that. That would be hard, especially with taking engineering classes.”