Panther progress

“I think this sea­son was a huge step in es­tab­lish­ing Fels as a ma­jor pro­gram in the Pub­lic League.” — Samuel Fels bas­ket­ball coach Mark Heimerdinger

Ni­jay Kelly of Fels reaches for a re­bound in the first quarter of Sat­urday’s AAAA quarterfi­nal game at South Phil­adelphia High School.


Even though his team was elim­in­ated from the post­season on Sat­urday, Samuel Fels High School boys bas­ket­ball coach Mark Heimerdinger emerged from de­feat with the fire of a mo­tiv­a­tion­al speak­er.

Though he ad­mit­ted to be­ing dis­ap­poin­ted with his team’s de­cision-mak­ing in the sea­son-end­ing 57-49 loss to John Bartram in a Pub­lic League quarterfi­nals match-up, it was dif­fi­cult for the third-year coach not to take pride in how far the pro­gram has come since Heimerdinger took over be­fore the 2009 sea­son.

In the first two years un­der Heimerdinger’s tu­tel­age, Fels was, on the sur­face, a me­diocre Pub­lic League pro­gram, post­ing a 21-19 over­all re­cord. But when you take in­to ac­count the pro­gress made in reach­ing that point (the Pan­thers went just 27-69 in the five years be­fore Heimerdinger got there), be­ing a .500 team seems pretty im­press­ive.

Even more im­press­ive — early play­off exit not­with­stand­ing — is what Fels ac­com­plished this sea­son, fin­ish­ing with an 18-7 over­all re­cord to go with a spark­ling 9-4 mark in the Pub­lic League B Di­vi­sion.

It has taken some time, but Fels, rid­ing a wave of re­spect­ab­il­ity, is stead­ily be­com­ing a key cog in the Pub­lic League bas­ket­ball ma­chine.

“I’m dis­ap­poin­ted that we didn’t play bet­ter, and I think our de­cision-mak­ing and shot se­lec­tion were aw­ful,” Heimerdinger said the day after his team’s loss to Bartram. “But I’m really proud of where we’ve brought the pro­gram, con­sid­er­ing where it was pri­or to me get­ting here.

“These guys be­came a group that had a fight­ing-in-the-trenches type of men­tal­ity,” he ad­ded. “The kids fought every battle to the bit­ter end, as op­posed to shoot­ing the gen­er­al in the back and run­ning away when things looked rough. I think this sea­son was a huge step in es­tab­lish­ing Fels as a ma­jor pro­gram in the Pub­lic League.”

If any­body knows all about es­tab­lish­ing Phil­adelphia high school bas­ket­ball pro­grams, it’s Heimerdinger.

Be­fore com­ing to Fels, he had been the head coach at Car­din­al Dougherty High School since 1983. He piled up 428 wins (against just 287 losses) while turn­ing the Car­din­als in­to an an­nu­al city — and some­times na­tion­ally re­cog­nized — jug­ger­naut.

Many of his play­ers moved on to ma­jor col­lege pro­grams, and former Dougherty star and Heimerdinger pu­pil Kyle Lowry has be­come an all-star-caliber point guard for the NBA’s Hou­s­ton Rock­ets. Point is, Heimerdinger knows what he’s do­ing, even if his land­ing at Fels from Dougherty may have seemed like a back­ward ca­reer move at the time. (Dougherty closed its doors for good fol­low­ing Heimerdinger’s first year at Fels.)

“When I was at Car­din­al Dougherty, we were ‘the hunted’ most of the time,” Heimerdinger said. “We were al­ways a team with a tar­get on our backs that oth­er teams were com­ing after, which is a clear sign of a suc­cess­ful pro­gram. When I first got to Fels, we were just an­oth­er one of the hunters, much like it was when I first got to Dougherty in the early eighties. Now it’s start­ing to shift dy­nam­ics a bit. We feel like we’re be­com­ing one of the hunted again.”

Fels won’t fully be one of the hunted un­til they can find some semb­lance of play­off suc­cess in the later rounds. Against Bartram, the Pan­thers got off on the wrong foot with a 2-for-13 first quarter and nev­er quite righted the ship, post­ing a 16-for-62 (26 per­cent) mark from the field. They also missed nine free throws and turned the ball over 21 times, which cer­tainly helped Bartram with­stand a late fourth-quarter Fels rally, when the Pan­thers cut a lead that was as large as 17 down to five with a quick bar­rage of three-point­ers.

Top-scor­ing threats Ni­jay Kelly (6-for-20, 13 points), T.J. Scott (eight points) and Ca­sey Bell (three points, 1-for-8 from three-point range) were all frus­trated by the much taller, more phys­ic­al Braves. Kelly had no prob­lems get­ting to the rim, but fin­ish­ing was ob­vi­ously a prob­lem.

“As a coach, I’m not happy be­cause I wanted everything to be right yes­ter­day,” said Heimerdinger, who also is Fels’ ath­let­ic dir­ect­or. “But I am proud of our pro­gress. We’re three years in now, and we’ve kept these kids to­geth­er and really have them work­ing hard all year round. We want good kids, coach­able stu­dent-ath­letes that go on to have fu­ture suc­cess, and I think we’ve de­veloped that blue­print for suc­cess.”

As of now, it’s un­clear wheth­er Fels will con­tin­ue rising up the Pub­lic League ranks or re­gress in­to the Pan­ther teams of the past. This sea­son was un­doubtedly a ma­jor ac­com­plish­ment for the school and the dir­ec­tion that Heimerdinger is guid­ing the bas­ket­ball pro­gram, but Fels will be hit hard by gradu­ation.

Kelly, also a foot­ball star who has re­ceived a lot of Di­vi­sion-I at­ten­tion to play on Sat­urdays be­gin­ning this fall, will be gone, as will Scott, Bell, Kyree West­brooks and Devon Wilson, who make up the team’s top-five over­all scorers.

Hol­d­overs for next year’s squad in­clude ju­ni­or guard Danil Mateo, who led Fels with 15 points against Bartram, and ju­ni­or Lester Mad­dox and fresh­man James Bish­op, who saw sig­ni­fic­ant ac­tion in the loss.

“I think we’re built for the fu­ture be­cause of all we’ve been through so far to­geth­er,” Heimerdinger said. “We only had thirty-four prac­tices for twenty-two reg­u­lar-sea­son games, and we’ve got­ten bet­ter at teach­ing them how to suc­ceed without a lot of prac­tices.

“And I think the guys who didn’t get a chance to play much, that will be back next sea­son, got a chance to see what it took for the cur­rent seni­ors to have some de­gree of suc­cess,” Heimerdinger con­tin­ued. “The biggest thing that made us so suc­cess­ful this sea­son was the trust we have in each oth­er; we’re not that great of a bas­ket­ball team, but our com­fort level with one an­oth­er al­lowed us to over­achieve.”

Heimerdinger said he and his coach­ing staff are very spe­cif­ic about what play­ers need to work on in terms of im­prov­ing their games between March and Oc­to­ber. If someone shows up un­pre­pared, then they will be ex­iled to the bench or off the team al­to­geth­er. (Heimerdinger cited an un­named re­cent high-scor­ing play­er who met this un­kind fate.) By hold­ing the play­ers ac­count­able for their ac­tions, they real­ized what was at stake and thus took their re­spons­ib­il­it­ies ser­i­ously.

“Our motto be­came ‘Five is One,’” Heimerdinger said. “We don’t get the types of play­ers at Fels that go on to play bas­ket­ball at Ken­tucky and North Car­o­lina, but we do what we need to do to be suc­cess­ful, which really is a trib­ute to the kids.

“We op­er­ated as a colony of ants. One ant act­ing sep­ar­ately from the rest of the colony won’t get that ant very far, but when work­ing to­geth­er as a group, that colony will be a force to be reckoned with. Every­one un­der­stood their role, and it’s go­ing to have to stay that way for us to keep this thing go­ing in the right dir­ec­tion.” ••


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