Joseph Santoliquito (@JSantoliquito)
(Ed. Note: This story is the latest in 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 2021-22 season preview coverage. As we publish more, the complete list of schools previewed will be found here.)
The long, dark hours. The constant pounding of bouncing basketballs, the stop-and-go rhythms of practice, the toot, toot, toots of whistles, confrontational screaming parents and the pointed solitude that comes with inevitable losses.
Coaching high school basketball can be a thankless grind.
Joe Dempsey (above, during the 2016-17 season) is back on the sidelines as a head coach, taking over at Spring-Ford. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Joe Dempsey smiles at the thought. He wouldn’t change the drudgery of it for the world.
The long-time successful former La Salle College High School head coach has found a new beginning at Spring-Ford. Dempsey coached the Explorers for 14 years before he and the Catholic League power parted ways in the spring of 2018. Dempsey had coached at La Salle for 27 years overall, and had teams that reached the PIAA state championship.
But Dempsey did find some solace the last few years as an assistant coach at Lower Merion under the legendary Gregg Downer, before taking the Spring-Ford job left vacant by former Rams’ coach Chris Talley, who left to take a job promotion within the Spring-Ford School District.
Talley was highly successful at Spring-Ford, going 134-72 over eight years, with two PAC-10 championships, two league runner-up finishes and three trips to the PIAA playoffs.
In steps Dempsey, 55, also highly successful, who compiled a 208-147 record (.586) in 14 seasons at La Salle, and in 2014, he led the Explorers to a 23-7 record and the PIAA Class 4A championship game before losing to District 7’s New Castle, 52-39. In his final season at La Salle, he guided the Explorers to a
15-8 finish and 8-5 in the Catholic League, losing to eventual league champ Roman Catholic, 56-46, in the league quarterfinals.
“I was devastated and (La Salle) had their reasons but what they were, I don’t know. I loved the school and I loved the kids, and the La Salle community,” said Dempsey, who still has lunch a few times a month with former La Salle players. “Gregg took me in and it was so good for my mental health that I was coaching again.
“It was a terrific experience at Lower Merion and I was given so much respect. It was so important for me to stay involved with the kids and stay involved with coaching. I was very hurt when I got let go by La Salle. Now I’m starting new here at Spring-Ford.”
Spring-Ford finished an uncharacteristic 6-7 overall last year and 2-6 at the bottom of the PAC-10 Liberty Division.
Gavin Schauder (above), at 6-foot-9, should be one of the better post presences in the PAC. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
The Rams, however, have quite a bit of firepower coming back in 6-foot-9 senior Gavin Schauder, who is getting college looks by Ithaca, The College of New Jersey and is thinking of possibly looking at a post-graduate school for a year.
He’ll be joined by 6-4 senior forward Jake Kressley, 6-1 junior forward Alex Lewis, 6-2 senior guard Cole Turner, 5-9 junior guard Caleb Little, 6-2 senior guard Braden Huntington and 6-foot sophomore guard EJ Campbell. Watch for 6-3 freshman guard Jacob Nguyen to make a quick impact.
“This is an adjustment period with guys getting used to me, and I’m getting used to them,” Dempsey said. “I certainly have a lot to learn about the PAC-10, getting used to the guys and their talent level, and I have to make sure I don’t bring my past with me and make sure I don’t compare them to any of my former teams.
“I want to make sure that they’re in good hands and we’re going to have a good experience.”
So far, in the brief time Dempsey has worked with the Rams, he’s projected a good impression. Spring-Ford will play a different style than in the past, stressing the three on offense and emphasizes defending the three on defense.
Dempsey loves ball movement and sharing.
“Coach Dempsey wants the attention placed on defense, and not giving up threes, so we’ve been stressing really hard defense,” Schauder said. “On offense, we want to get the ball moving a lot and look for the best possible open shot. We’re going to be shooting more threes than we have in the past, and we do like to get the ball up court on a fast break, because we want to tire the other team out.
“Coach Dempsey is allowing me to have a balance with more chances to take three-point shots than in the past, plus be inside. I like what Coach Dempsey is doing. This is a revenge season for us. Last year was the first time we haven’t had a winning season in a long time.
“We didn’t play well last year. COVID didn’t help, but we didn’t play well, either, so there’s no excuse. We want to win. We want to win the PAC-10.”
This opportunity has rejuvenated Dempsey.
“I’m a better coach now than I was at La Salle, because I’m back doing what I love,” Dempsey said. “We were in the state top 10 regularly at La Salle. I’ve definitely grown. A lot of coaches, we take ourselves too seriously. I poured my heart and soul into La Salle.
“When you have something that happened to me at La Salle, it rips your heart out. But I grew to realize as a basketball coach, you’re no more important in a kid’s life than the baseball coach, or any other coach, and certainly no more important than the teachers.
“I’m really looking forward to coaching these guys.”
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who began writing for CoBL in 2021 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.