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Roman Catholic tabs former coach Chris McNesby to take over hoops program

04/29/2021, 11:00pm EDT
By Josh Verlin

Chris McNesby coaches during a game at Roman Catholic

Chris McNesby (above, in 2014) won 168 games in eight years as Roman's head coach from 2008-2016. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

To move forward, Roman Catholic went back. 

When the Center City all-boys high school found itself in need of a new basketball coach following Matt Griffin’s departure to the University at Albany, a reach-out from an all-too-familiar name turned out to be exactly the right answer. 

“I wasn’t sure how it would feel at first, but it keeps coming back to me,” Chris McNesby said. “I’m feeling recharged and ready to go.”

It was 13 years ago that McNesby, several years a Roman assistant coach, succeeded longtime Roman coach Dennis Seddon as the Cahillites’ courtside leader. A Roman alum, McNesby went 168-55 (.753) overall and 90-16 (.849) in the Catholic League in the eight years that followed, winning back-to-back Catholic League and PIAA state championships in both 2015 and 16.

Following that magic run — led by future Penn State standouts Lamar Stevens, Tony Carr & Co. — McNesby stepped aside in May 2016. He and his wife had three children under the age of 10, and the grind that is being a top-level coach in the Philadelphia Catholic League isn’t one that ever really lets up.

“I think everyone knows how much goes into it, the fact that we had a nice little back-to-back, it was just a grind,” he said. “I really wanted to dive into coaching (my kids) and being at all their stuff.”

Griffin certainly was no slouch in the follow-up act, winning Catholic League championships in 2018 and 2019 while finishing as runners-up each of the last two years; he was 96-29 (54-12 PCL) in five years, going 10-2 this past season. The former St. Joe’s Prep point guard, who had also taken over as the school’s athletics director, had the team in prime position to challenge for yet another PCL title in 2021-22 when he jumped on the opportunity to be a Division I coach.

McNesby hadn’t thought much about coaching since his departure, though he’d been around his former program from time to time. Had the opportunity opened up a year earlier, he’s still not sure he would have jumped at it; had it been any other school, it might not have caught his interest. 

But this job, at this time...

“When Matt stepped away, it immediately popped into my head, ‘man, could I make this work?’” he said. First step was a consultation with his wife, Lisa, herself a state championship coach, of cheerleading at St. Hubert’s. 

“She said ‘you should do it, you’ve got to go for it, we’re in a good spot, family’s in a good spot, obviously you love it, you miss it,’” McNesby said. “So that was huge.”

There were also his kids: Allie (14), Julia (12), and Patrick (10). When McNesby left, there were a lot of youth teams to coach, complicated schedules that meant his Roman demands would have meant extra hardship on his family. As they’ve gotten older, he explained, they’ve focused on certain activities and that doesn’t always mean they need him around: “I don’t think they want the dad-coach anymore,” McNesby said with a laugh.

McNesby (above, in 2016) coached Roman Catholic to two straight PIAA big-school crowns before stepping down. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

So there was the rest of the family, voicing their support. 

“They’re super-excited. They’re really excited,” McNesby said. “They remember a lot of the memories of the state playoffs and the run [...] they know how much I love it.”

All that remained was, you know, getting the job. So McNesby emailed the school’s president, Rev. Joseph Bongard, expressing his interest in getting in the mix. It wasn’t going to be an easy choice; Bongard said that the last time around, when McNesby left the job while the school was also in the search for a new principal, “we had seven people apply for principal and 32 apply for basketball coach.”

Prior success or not, McNesby was going to have some competition. And while the Catholic League hasn’t undergone a revolution in the last half-decade, there’s no doubt that there’s been some shifting of power, new faces at other schools that have changed the landscape.

“Certainly Chris comes with a lot of gravitas and did an excellent job, but I can honestly say from the committee we established, when we did interviews, he had to earn it again,” Bongard said. “We’re not looking for yesterday, we’re looking for the future.”

Bongard, a Roman alum who worked at the school from 2006-10 and was appointed to his current position in 2014, was also on the selection committee that hired McNesby the first time around. Once McNesby proved to the selection committee he wasn’t going to rest on his laurels and success from last time, it was hard to pick a better choice.

“One of the things Chris brought to the table the first time, and Matt built up on it [...] we’re not a basketball program with a school attached, we’re a school that has a basketball program, and that perspective is really important to make sure these guys are ingrained as part of the program,” Bongard said. “Certainly Chris’ track record of knowing the program there was an advantage.”

While all the players McNesby coached have been out of high school at least a couple years, he’s still got plenty of familiarity with the current state of the Cahillites program. Three of his assistant coaches — Bill Goebig, Kyle Bernard and Mike Wild — are all still on staff, as is team statistician and local hoops figure Tom ‘Hock’ McKenna.

McNesby will still have plenty of familiar faces around him, including Tom McKenna (behind, with glasses). (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

There’s another couple familiar names on the staff in freshman coaches TreVaughn Wilkerson and Manny Taylor, who both played under McNesby and graduated in 2015; Wilkerson played college hoops at Hartford and Lincoln, while Taylor played football at Rutgers. 

“Having them around is great,” McNesby said “It makes you feel good because maybe in some way they’ve really enjoyed the experience of Roman and playing for me at Roman, so as a coach you feel a little proud about that.”

McNesby’s also certainly proud of the Roman alumni he coached who have turned pro, most notably Stevens, who just signed a multi-year deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers after coming just a few points shy of setting the Penn State scoring record. An undrafted free agent rookie, Stevens is averaging 4.1 ppg in 12.5 mpg (40 games) for the Cavaliers, breaking out for 15 points and 11 rebounds against the Spurs in March.

“The classic story of just working hard and just keep pushing and grinding and look what happens,” McNesby said. “Good things happen to good people.”

Even though he knew it was the right call at the time, McNesby still missed being part of the action when he stepped aside.

“When you’re in it, you don’t realize it, but when you step away, [you miss] the relationships of the Philly basketball community and your players,” he said. “It’s like being a part of something really special, and when you’re away from it, you’re outside the circle. 

“There’s times, not having those player relationships, it’s like gut-wrenching, to be sitting at home on a Friday night or a Sunday, like ‘what am I doing?’”

If the group of players that made up the Cahillites roster stays at Broad and Vine next season, McNesby has a team that will immediately be the favorite to win the Catholic League title for the 33rd time in school history. 

Rising seniors Daniel Skillings (19.7 ppg), a 6-6 wing, and Khalil Farmer (18.9 ppg), a 6-3 guard, are two of the top scorers in the PCL, while 6-2 rising junior point guard Xzayvier Brown (10.1 ppg) like his two teammates also has multiple Division I offers. That trio alone will be plenty for opponents to deal with, along with 6-8 big man Chad Anglin and promising sophomore Toby Ojukwu, who started a few games as a freshman; it remains to be seen if 6-7 rising senior wing Matija Radanovic, a Montenegro native, comes back for another year.

Jumping right back into a team with nothing less than championship expectations is the only way McNesby would have it. 

“Ever since I’ve coached at Roman, they expect us to be in the championship every year,” he said. “I get that, and that’s the fun of coaching at Roman, too, the expectations are high and they have a lot of support as well. I thrive at coaching at a place like Roman.”

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