Cooper Driscoll (above) and Strath Haven are under new direction this year -- kind of. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
(Ed. Note: This story is part of CoBL’s “Prepping for Preps” series, which will take a look at many of the top high school programs in the region as part of our 2017-18 season preview coverage. The complete list of schools previewed so far can be found here.)
There was a point late in the summer that Cooper Driscoll really worried about his senior season being an enjoyable one.
Strath Haven’s boys basketball team’s offseason was basically non-existent. The majority of the dozen-or-so players slated to make up the varsity roster were multi-sport athletes, who spent the spring and summer months playing lacrosse, or running track.
In the fall, when the Haven students returned to school, they encountered another problem: head coach Dave McFadden resigned in early September after two seasons, wanting to spend more time with his family. So there were no official open gym workouts that first month of school, only some individual work put in by a few members of the team.
The Panthers were quite behind, and Driscoll was nervous.
“We came in with a losing attitude in the beginning of the year,” he said, “and I was really afraid we were going to suck for the whole season.”
Saving the day was a man very familiar with Strath Haven basketball.
The last time Strath Haven made the state tournament, in 1992, Dan Spangler’s older brother was a senior; his father Lamont “Monty” Spangler was in his first year as an assistant coach, a position he held for a decade. Monty Spangler took over the program in 2002-03, a year after Dan’s graduation from the school, and was the head coach for the next four years.
When Steve Lewis became head coach in 2006-07, Dan Spangler stayed on as a volunteer assistant for several seasons. He then spent some time at Unionville, before returning to Strath Haven in 2014-15 as the program’s freshman coach.
The last two years, Dan Spangler had served as a JV coach for the Panthers after previously spending one season as the program’s freshman team coach. He actually left McFadden’s staff in the summer for a position as an assistant coach at Chester Charter of the Arts, but wasn’t away for long.
“It helps a ton,” Spangler said of his familiarity with the program. “The community support is there, the school support is there, the kids really respect everything we do. It’s a great environment.”
The Panthers’ players went from wondering who would be coaching them to working with a coach they knew even better than McFadden. The eight seniors on the varsity roster all were with Spangler as freshmen in 2014-15, and most also had him for two years as a JV coach.
“We were nervous about a new coach coming in and what the system would be,” senior Ryan Morris said. “When Spangler got the job, we were all relieved since he’s been our coach since freshman year.”
Ryan Morris (above) and Driscoll are two of 10 seniors on the Haven roster. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“We knew he was going to get down to business right away, we knew that we couldn’t mess around or anything,” Morris added. “Obviously it’s going to be fun, because we have a close relationship with him, but basketball comes first and we can joke around after everything is taken care of.”
As soon as Spangler was hired, he got the Panthers right into the gym, trying to make up for lost time.
“I think he’s got the right mindset, he’s really whipping us into shape, he’s not tolerating any BS,” Driscoll said. “It’s what we needed right now...he did a near-perfect job getting us back together.”
Strath Haven will look quite different this year, if only because of the departure of John Harrar. The muscular 6-foot-9 center, now at Penn State, was the biggest body in the Central League and a dominant force in the paint. Harrar was certainly a major reason Haven finished last regular season with a 13-9 regular season record (9-7 Central League).
In the Panthers’ loss to Lower Merion in the league championship game, Harrar contributed 31 points and eight rebounds, plus five assists. He went for 21 in his final high school game, a loss to Upper Merion in the District 1 5A tournament’s first round.
Driscoll, a 6-6 forward who started alongside Harrar up front a year ago, now represents the only real size on the Panthers’ roster. Nobody’s expecting him to be Harrar, but there’s no denying that the only way for Strath Haven to reach its potential is for Driscoll to put up solid production in the paint.
“He’s going to be good,” Spangler said of his senior big man, who’s being recruited by several elite academic Division III programs like MIT. “He’s probably harder on himself than I would ever be...he’s an integral part of our program, our team. Everything we do is going to flow around him.
“Cooper’s not going to be asked to do everything John did last year, because he did a lot, but Cooper’s going to have to fill some of those shoes.”
Driscoll returns as a starter, as do seniors Jeff Conner and Ryan Morris, both of whom -- along with junior Brady Mutz -- Spangler singled out as those he’s counting on to step up in the scoring column. Another senior, Chris Rosini, returns after starting last season, while seniors Jordan Graves, A.J. Santisi and Zach Politarhos round out an experienced rotation.
While last year the scoring was seemingly affected by gravity, the ball magnetically drawn to Harrar in the post, this year’s Strath Haven squad should see a lot more balance in the points department.
“Before it was four players outside and John’s the man, get the ball to John,” Driscoll said. “Now it’s a little more distribution for everybody. We’re looking more to get everybody physically involved, not just two big guys taking the whole load.”
Included in Haven’s group of 10 seniors are those who have had success in other sports, who have been parts of soccer and lacrosse and football teams that have had postseason success. The way Spangler sees it, there’s no reason that shouldn’t carry over onto the court.
“They understand what it takes to get there,” Spangler said. “I’m leaning on them a lot to be the leaders and show the guys how to win and how to get to that and we’ll do our best to get out of the first round.”