Joseph Santoliquito (@JSantoliquito)
There was a sparse crowd watching last Saturday at Jefferson University during one of the Philly Live afternoon session games between Conestoga and Cumberland Valley. The folding chairs surrounding the court were dotted with the usual: Division II and III coaches jotting down notes on clipboards, parents yelling approval and some disapproval over a referee’s call and one Conestoga mom proudly displaying a black t-shirt with “Stoga Playoffs” adorned in white across the front.
On the court was a Conestoga team that was playing so well that it didn’t need a coach.
In a sense, the Pioneers did not have one—not officially at the moment.
Long-time and highly respected Conestoga coach Mike Troy stepped down on June 20 after 16 years to commit more time to his family, though it came as a surprise to the players.
Under Troy, Conestoga, which finished 16-7 last season, reached the PIAA District 1 playoffs the last 14 years. Troy himself reached the 300-victory milestone at Conestoga in December 2018. Troy is a five-time District 1 champion when he coached at Devon Prep and he’s won over 350 games over his career. He’s been a coach for 28 years.
His departure has the team in a nebulous situation this summer, a crucial time for high school players to hone their games and grab the attention of college recruiters.
Last Saturday, Conestoga smoked Cumberland Valley, 63-55, behind a team-high 21 points from rising 6-foot junior guard Brendan Styer, 16 from promising 6-foot rising sophomore guard Ben Robinson and 11 from rising senior Abe Dembele. Running many of the same plays they did under Troy, Conestoga got out to a 5-0 lead, 13-4 edge and were handily leading 32-18 at halftime.
The Pioneers went 3-1 in Philly Live games under the generosity of Mike Scott, who stepped in as the Pioneers’ Philly Live coach and who went the extra bounds to implore Conestoga athletic director Kevin Pechin to allow the team to play in Philly Live.
The team tries to work out a few times a week for about 90 minutes in the evening at the Teegarden Park in Berwyn. They have received no timetable as to when they’re going to get a new coach. An encouraging sign is most of the team is showing up for these workouts.
“It is a little unusual playing this summer without a coach, but we’re trying our best to pick up the pieces and move forward,” Styer said. “We’re setting up practices up in a park and doing as much as we can on our own during the live periods (when college coaches can evaluate high school players in person).
“Mr. Scott has been a big help. We’re doing walk-throughs with plays and trying to stay ready for the season. We’re excited and waiting for a new coach to come in.
“Right now, we’re going through some team bonding. It was a little bit of a shock [when] coach Troy left. He’s a good guy and we’re sorry to see him go. We’re trying to make the best of the situation. We also know what’s ahead for us. Radnor is going to be really good again. As for our expectations go, we have talent back and [we’re] excited about the future. We’re still running a lot of what Troy did this summer, but we’re probably going to be changing a lot of stuff this year after (Richmond-bound) Michael Walz, our 6-10 kid, graduated. We’re probably going to do a lot of transition stuff.
“This is a relatively new group that’s hoping to jell with each other.”
(L to R) Ben Robinson, Abe Dembele and Brendan Styer have been leading Conestoga during their summer workouts and games. (Photo: Joseph Santoliquito/CoBL)
Dembele admitted this is a tough situation. He played in Troy’s system for the last three years.
“We’re closely connected, or at least we try to be,” Dembele said. “We haven’t had any word who or when they’re going to name the next coach. I still have contact with coach Troy and he has been willing to stay in touch with me about ways I can get better and attract college coaches.”
Robinson has no point of reference with Troy’s system, coming up from the junior varsity level.
“I played under coach Troy for two months and we are running some of the same plays,” Robinson said. “This is something new for me, so I’ll be learning what the new coach brings.”
By halftime of the Cumberland Valley game, Troy was there on the baseline.
Approached about this story, Troy expressed how much of a fan he was and will remain of his former players and how he will continue to support them. He spent Saturday morning coaching his daughter’s team and he stressed his primary concern is for his former players to become better basketball players, though more importantly to him, better young men.
Scott, whose sons, Shane and Myles, daughter, Nia, a lacrosse player, all played sports for Conestoga, has not applied for the open position, but he is part of the hiring committee. Scott said no specific time frame has been placed on when Conestoga will select a new coach.
But the overriding feeling is the sooner the better.
“I called Kevin and told him that these kids have to be involved in the summer,” Scott said. “Mike Troy is a good guy and a good coach. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for him to walk away and he is still invested in these kids. We ran a lot of Mike’s stuff, because I didn’t have time to put other stuff in.
“We attacked gaps and opened the floor, and I told them to play as hard as they could on defense. I spoke to Kevin a few days ago to stress they name a new coach by at least mid-July. By August, we have to get the kids into camps, summer leagues and get them running in open gyms to prepare for the season.”
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.