Mike Doyle (above) gestures to a player during the Sun Valley spring league on Thursday, May 27. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
ASTON, Pa. — Mike Doyle has been the head boys’ basketball coach at Penncrest for 18 years; he’s spent nine as a Division I assistant at Saint Joseph’s, and also been a head coach at the Division III level as well as a couple other high schools.
Yet the 55-year-old Doyle was feeling something he wasn’t used to before a relatively meaningless spring league game against Penn Wood at Sun Valley High School.
“To be honest with you, I’ve been doing this since I was 21 years old, I’m 55 now, so what’s the math, 34 years? And I was a little nervous,” he said. “Swear to God.”
The Lions’ longtime boss has made no secret of his ongoing battle with chronic myeloid leukemia, a type of cancer that causes the body to make excess white blood cells. It’s something Doyle has lived with for several years and will manage for the rest of his life with daily chemotherapy pills, ones which weaken his immune system.
Due to that condition, when the COVID pandemic began to rear its head last spring, Doyle had to be as safe as possible, stepping away from his job as a social studies teacher at Penncrest even before the pandemic forced schools around the country to go virtual in mid-March.
“(The doctors) were like ‘we need to figure out what’s going on,’” he said. “I wasn’t in school that Friday, and then all hell broke loose that weekend, and then Monday nobody was in school, so that was it.”
For the last 18 months Doyle has had to lay low, waiting for the pandemic to subside enough to where it was safe for him to be able to get back to the sidelines. He spent the 2020-21 season watching Penncrest’s games from home while former Friends’ Central and Neumann sharpshooter Billy Cassidy, a second-year assistant under Doyle, led the squad.
Cassidy served as de facto head coach during Penncrest’s 15-game season, where they went 5-10.
Doyle, watching each game from home, was still plenty involved. He phoned into each game during the halftime locker room meetings, sharing a few pointers of what he saw from the first half. Further thoughts — and there were plenty of them — went straight to Cassidy.
“I could feel my phone going off during the game, at halftime of the game, after the game,” Cassidy said, “I talked to him every night after practice, after a game, for at least an hour.”
“True story...I’d set up a TV tray and I’d have a yellow legal pad,” Doyle said, “and after game three when I brought out the yellow legal pad, the dog would run upstairs under the bed.”
Billy Cassidy (standing) filled in as head coach in Doyle's absence. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
In his return to the sidelines Thursday night, Doyle still mostly deferred to Cassidy as the team’s head coach, though he was still plenty vocal from the bench; the post-game pep talk was split evenly between the two. Doyle said he’ll take back over as full-time head coach next week, though Cassidy’s sure to find more of his voice now than he had before.
“Overall, great learning experience for myself, and it was definitely a challenge,” Cassidy said. “It’s definitely different being in the head spot vs. the assistant spot, and I learned that pretty fast.”
Penncrest’s players were happy to have Doyle back on the sidelines, even if the freshmen and sophomores in attendance were seeing him in person for the first time. The Lions will lean heavily on a pair of seniors, Saahir Lee and Ben Stanton, both of whom were sophomore contributors the last time Doyle was in charge.
“It was a rough year dealing with not having him there and changing up the whole program, starting with somebody new,” Lee said, “and I think just seeing him doing better and getting into the school just brightens everyone’s hearts.”
The final night of the Sun Valley league didn’t go as well for Penncrest, which lost to Penn Wood in a game it trailed the whole way through, the Lions having trouble breaking the Patriots’ press and finding easy shots in the half-court. But Doyle knows he’s got plenty of time to work with this group, a full offseason ahead. No more livestream feeds, no more legal pads, no more scaring the dog.
“It’s better than sitting home and watching Jeopardy, which I’ve been doing for the last year and a half,” Doyle said.
Penn Wood 38, Penncrest 26
Chichester 44, Sun Valley 28
Sun Valley 40, Chester Charter 24
Garnet Valley 63, Marple Newtown 48
— Penncrest rising senior Saahir Lee looks like he could be in for a high-scoring season. The 5-9 combo guard is strong with the ball in his hands, with great lift on his pull-up jumper; he also had a nice up-and-under finish with his dominant (left) hand, and knocked down a couple 3-pointers. Lee also made good passes to his teammates and wasn’t selfish on the fastbreak. He said he’s already hearing from D-II West Chester.
— Garnet Valley’s Mike Brown has got his program clicking over the years, and they were the most cohesive group on this particular night, despite being a fairly young squad missing several pieces. It was a good night for a pair of rising juniors, Max Koehler and Ryan Faccenda, who (I didn’t keep stats) must have accounted for 40 of their team’s 63 points, and likely more if we’re including assists. Koehler, a 6-3 guard, can really play with the ball in his hands and was getting to the bucket at will, and Faccenda was a strong cutter and outside shooter who used his 6-4 frame well around the rim. There are also several intriguing freshmen on the Jaguars’ roster, but I want to see them play a few more times.
— A few others I noticed tonight: Penn Wood rising junior Mekhi Shillingsford is a crafty 6-5 wing forward with good touch around the rim and put in a strong effort on the glass; Chichester rising junior Mazen Sayed is a calm, cool and collected 6-1 point guard who made good decisions, took smart shots and played hard on both ends; Sun Valley rising sophomore Noah Griffin is a speedster of a guard at 5-8, and he could really get to the rim when he wanted and made quality passes in both games SV played; Chester Charter rising junior guards Jayden Williams and Kevin Miller are both under 5-9 but made shots, got into the lane and were problems for the defense.
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