Panther pride

Samuel Fels High School ath­let­ic dir­ect­or Mark Heimerdinger works rig­or­ously to pro­duce res­ults. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHO­TOS

— 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.”

Heimerdinger agreed.

“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 em­or­

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