— Tireless efforts have helped turn around the athletics program at Samuel Fels High School. But challenges remain.
Samuel Fels High School athletic director Mark Heimerdinger has a saying he likes to use when describing the sports foundation he has been attempting to build from the ground up.
To make a truly successful transition into annual consistency in athletics, Heimerdinger has maintained that Fels must go from “being the hunter to being the hunted.” Athletics, and the overall culture at the once-troubled institution, have improved dramatically, but a full transformation into one of the “hunted” would be much easier if some of the school’s athletic teams actually had the necessary real estate in which to do some hunting.
At Fels, challenges old and new continue to present themselves. Recently removed from a dubious list that painted the school as a constant problem child, a new, energetic administration at the school, including Heimerdinger (third year as AD, fourth as boys’ basketball coach) and principal Shawn McGuigan (second year), has worked tirelessly to reward the student body for buying into the culture change at Fels.
Still though, it’s been anything but easy. As Heimerdinger said during a recent tour of the school, “There’s no blueprint for this. We take the challenges (as they come) and deal with them.”
At the Summerdale-based school, things have indeed gone from worse to better.
Starting with a move to a beautiful new school building before the 2009-10 year at 5500 Langdon St. (the school used to be located at a cramped nearby former middle school), Fels’ reputation has been on the upswing. McGuigan, a Mayfair resident and Lincoln grad, and his vision for blanket improvement at the school are starting to be felt.
In a two-part profile of the school in May, the Northeast Times noted that not only had Fels been taken off the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Persistently Dangerous Schools list (mainly due to violent incidents during school hours), but after weeding out the troublemakers, many of the remaining students are excelling. Truancy rates have been slashed, and overall attendance is up. Though a slow process, a turnaround has begun in earnest.
“It’s a beautiful building, but once you get past that, it’s work,” McGuigan said. “We’re building the school from the ground up, and not just athletics, but also academics, arts and safety so that we can provide a culture for kids that attend here and staff that works here. We want them to enjoy coming to school and be able to take part in the various activities.”
As far as athletics go, overall turnout has improved, and the teams have seen results.
The boys soccer team, led by coach George Ewerth, has made the playoffs each year since Heimerdinger arrived, while George Dufner’s baseball team has also tasted the postseason. Heimerdinger’s hoops team has made the playoffs in two of his three seasons at the helm, including last year’s 18-game campaign that qualified the Panthers for the state tournament. Bill Harrigan, who in his fifth year as football coach can be considered a wily veteran at the school, has guided a burgeoning program through its infancy; in 2010, Fels won a Public League Silver Division title in football and moved into the Gold Division alongside the likes of established powers Washington, Frankford and Northeast.
Still, challenges remain. The new building gives the school a campus-like feel, but when Heimerdinger opens a door in the gymnasium leading to behind the school, his frustrations are immediately felt. A large open field, long meant to house facilities for the soccer, baseball and softball teams, remains exactly how it’s been for a year and a half: empty. Delays with contractors hired to construct adequate fields have been both frustrating and bountiful; the entire space is filled with dips and divots.
All Heimerdinger can do is wait, as he has been doing since May 23, 2011, when plans to renovate the fields were finalized. As a result, his outdoor teams have to play all of their games on the road, a brutal disadvantage for an athletics program desperately trying to build and promote school spirit within the school grounds.
Around the other side of the building, the football team was practicing in a small, crude, makeshift area, preparing for its Thanksgiving game against Frankford, a school that has its own football stadium. There are no lines drawn into the space, which has created problems for a 3-8 team searching for annual improvement.
“At Fels, a touchdown in practice is when we blow the whistle so the kid doesn’t run into the gate,” Harrigan said. “Kids could get a nose for the end zone if they could actually see it. Not having a full space to practice hurts, but we make due with what we have.”
“All we have is a soccer ball and each other,” added Ewerth, whose team also practices on a field with no lines or goal posts. “We have nothing at all, but our kids are so resilient.”
Inside, things are better, but much is still left to be desired. The school gymnasium is pristine but overcrowded. On this day, a basketball practice was going on while the band rehearsed nearby. Also, the school’s pool has not been fully functional in two years. But despite all of this, Fels has pushed onward, refusing to let the elements crush the spirit the school has begun to build.
“We’re developing an overall culture here,” said Heimerdinger, who in three decades as coach at Cardinal Dougherty transformed the basketball program into one of the best in the city. “High school is more than just going to class. We want kids coming in as freshmen to be able to go to games, pep rallies, plays … things that make a school a school. By twelfth grade, we want them to know what it’s like to experience that.”
Heimerdinger and McGuigan spoke excitedly of events like a student-faculty volleyball game, and the fact that the school is putting on two showings of A Christmas Carol on Dec. 7 and 8.
“I’ve been working since last year to change the reputation and bring people here to show what we have to offer,” McGuigan said. “When I tell people what I do for a living, the first thing they say is, ‘Oh, sorry.’ What are you sorry for? I love my job, he (Heimerdinger) loves his job. Teachers aren’t fighting to get out of here, and kids want to come here. They see the vision, and they’re buying into it. We want to provide the high school experience everyone deserves.”
Harrigan said that in the past, many of his players would have quit by now, tired of being mocked for losing; now, his entire roster has made it to Thanksgiving. Excitement is in the air, even if the worn expression on Heimerdinger’s face sometimes fails to show it.
“After twenty-eight years at Dougherty, there’s a rejuvenation in me to build from a foundation,” he said. “I preach to the kids that academics, combined with something like basketball, can give them an opportunity to go to college and have a better life. The kids used to drop like flies, but now there’s a sense of mutual pride and respect. We have that foxhole mentality. I’m excited to see how much better they can be with acceptable facilities to practice on.”
Heimerdinger and McGuigan both admitted to being frustrated at times, as you get the feeling that getting adequate fields for the kids could be likened to trying to run through molasses.
“It’s a big rat race, and sometimes it feels like we’re getting nowhere,” McGuigan lamented. “We just want our kids to be able to go out and support their fellow students. A student morale is something to be proud of.”
“It’s not about being jealous or envious of other schools,” he said. “We want to be able to compete with them in the Gold Division and be well-established in our success. It’s about a total experience, which plays into the overall pride and respect for a school.”
And while Heimerdinger is left irritated that his school’s accomplishments often go overlooked, he understands that establishing consistency is part of the overall process.
“Going from the hunter to the hunted is all about consistent play,” he said. “You don’t get that status after a one or two-year run. You have to build on it so that other school s realize, ‘They’re coming after us.’” ••
Sports editor Ed Morrone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or email@example.com