The basketball from Mark Heimerdinger’s 400th career coaching victory at Cardinal Dougherty rests unceremoniously atop a file cabinet in his office at Samuel Fels High School.
Heimerdinger isn’t one to boast about career accomplishments, but the visibility of his successes help serve as motivation to the players at his current school.
Just ask Danil Mateo.
Mateo, a senior guard at Fels, has proven to be quite the revelation for a Panther team essentially starting from scratch. A year after winning 18 games, making the Public League playoffs and qualifying for the state tournament, Fels headed into a season of uncertainty after graduating its entire starting five (and then some).
Back in mid-November with the season rapidly approaching, Heimerdinger still had no idea what his lineup would look like, just that it would feature many new faces.
Mateo is the most prominent of those. Used mainly as a reserve a season ago, he has developed into an explosive scorer for the Panthers. After Friday’s 57-47 come-from-behind win over Sayre High School, Mateo ended the regular season with a 23.3 points per game average, a mark good enough for second in the city.
Above all else, Mateo is thankful to his coach for pushing him into realizing his full potential in his three seasons as a varsity player at the school.
“I love him … I love playing for him; I love the way he is and the way he coaches,” Mateo gushed after torching Sayre for 25 points, including 15 in a crucial third quarter comeback. “He inspires us. Without him we wouldn’t win. That’s the best coach I’ve ever played for.”
Mateo understands Heimerdinger’s pedigree for success, which only makes him want to work harder. Even though he likely won’t make it to the NBA or even get a Division I scholarship, as some of Heimerdinger’s former players have done, Mateo sees a much bigger picture. He sees a coach who has pushed him from the end of the bench to practically leading the city in scoring.
The day before the win over Sayre, Mateo poured in 44 points in a 90-76 win over Robeson, breaking the school record of 40 set by Dionte Christmas in 2004. Christmas went on to star at Temple and now plays professionally overseas.
“My confidence has just gone through the roof as the season has gone on,” Mateo said. “I just want to come out and help my team be successful.”
Though their win total of eight is 10 less than a year ago, Mateo’s Panthers have made headway. A seven-game losing streak was followed by three straight wins to close out the regular season, setting up an opening round playoff match-up vs. Northeast on Tuesday afternoon. (Despite Mateo’s 31 points, Northeast prevailed, 59-56, on a tie-breaking three-pointer by DeAndre Williams with eight seconds left.)
It hasn’t been the easiest campaign of Heimerdinger’s lengthy career, but his time at Fels has taught him to measure successes and failures outside of just wins and losses.
“It’s extremely gratifying to make the playoffs with a new bunch of kids, especially after a few guys transferred earlier in the year,” Heimerdinger said. “If you aren’t playing your best basketball now, after learning from your earlier losses and mistakes, then you’re in deep trouble.”
So did Heimerdinger, now in his fourth decade of coaching at the high school level, ever anticipate such a forceful emergence from Mateo?
“I didn’t even come close to thinking he’d score the basketball at this rate,” Heimerdinger said. “He’s a smart, heady kid, but never in my wildest dreams did I anticipate him scoring the way he is.”
Heimerdinger admitted Mateo hasn’t had much help this season playing with guys with little to no varsity experience, but that his star player’s confidence has trickled down to the rest of the roster. After Mateo’s third quarter scoring binge against Sayre with the game still up for grabs, it was the scorer’s teammates who helped put the game away. (James Cottrell added 10 for the game, while Jordan Allen and Berny Visaint each checked in with nine.) Collectively on defense, the Panthers allowed just 16 second half points.
Spreading the ball around has happened in large part out of necessity; when the defense closes in on Mateo, Heimerdinger has stressed to the other players to take advantage of the subsequent openings on the floor.
“When teams take your strengths away, which for us is taking Danil away, then you’ve got to call on others to make the available plays,” he said.
Heimerdinger likes to use the word “progress” a lot at Fels, and Mateo maintains that it’s been made. Heimerdinger also is quick to point out that of Fels’ 10 losses, two were by a point, two were by two points, one was by five points and another went to double overtime. The Panthers have been competitive, but it’s also been the first time many of these players have been on the floor in crunch-time situations. It’s been an ongoing learning process, one that Heimerdinger’s bunch has responded to, if the three-game win streak to close the season is any indication.
“We had to learn how to play together and learn each other’s games,” Mateo said. “Each teammate has started feeling more comfortable and successful on the court.”
And no matter what happens against Northeast, Mateo is grateful for the chance Heimerdinger presented him when the season started.
“He gets us ready for what comes next,” Mateo said. “If he didn’t make sure we kept working hard, the playoffs wouldn’t be here for us. We recognized the opportunity in front of us and just came out with a new mindset. We were going to turn it up because we were tired of losing, and I think we have done that.” ••
Sports Editor Ed Morrone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or firstname.lastname@example.org