Mr. Big Shot

Lead­ing the charge: Samuel Fels’ Danil Mateo (No. 2) scored 25 in a win over Sayre a day after break­ing the school’s single-game scor­ing re­cord. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHO­TOS

— In one year’s time, Samuel Fels’ Danil Mateo has gone from bench play­er to one of the city’s lead­ing scorers.

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 em­or­

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