Nijay Kelly of Fels reaches for a rebound in the first quarter of Saturday’s AAAA quarterfinal game at South Philadelphia High School.
Even though his team was eliminated from the postseason on Saturday, Samuel Fels High School boys basketball coach Mark Heimerdinger emerged from defeat with the fire of a motivational speaker.
Though he admitted to being disappointed with his team’s decision-making in the season-ending 57–49 loss to John Bartram in a Public League quarterfinals match-up, it was difficult for the third-year coach not to take pride in how far the program has come since Heimerdinger took over before the 2009 season.
In the first two years under Heimerdinger’s tutelage, Fels was, on the surface, a mediocre Public League program, posting a 21–19 overall record. But when you take into account the progress made in reaching that point (the Panthers went just 27–69 in the five years before Heimerdinger got there), being a .500 team seems pretty impressive.
Even more impressive — early playoff exit notwithstanding — is what Fels accomplished this season, finishing with an 18–7 overall record to go with a sparkling 9–4 mark in the Public League B Division.
It has taken some time, but Fels, riding a wave of respectability, is steadily becoming a key cog in the Public League basketball machine.
“I’m disappointed that we didn’t play better, and I think our decision-making and shot selection were awful,” Heimerdinger said the day after his team’s loss to Bartram. “But I’m really proud of where we’ve brought the program, considering where it was prior to me getting here.
“These guys became a group that had a fighting-in-the-trenches type of mentality,” he added. “The kids fought every battle to the bitter end, as opposed to shooting the general in the back and running away when things looked rough. I think this season was a huge step in establishing Fels as a major program in the Public League.”
If anybody knows all about establishing Philadelphia high school basketball programs, it’s Heimerdinger.
Before coming to Fels, he had been the head coach at Cardinal Dougherty High School since 1983. He piled up 428 wins (against just 287 losses) while turning the Cardinals into an annual city — and sometimes nationally recognized — juggernaut.
Many of his players moved on to major college programs, and former Dougherty star and Heimerdinger pupil Kyle Lowry has become an all-star-caliber point guard for the NBA’s Houston Rockets. Point is, Heimerdinger knows what he’s doing, even if his landing at Fels from Dougherty may have seemed like a backward career move at the time. (Dougherty closed its doors for good following Heimerdinger’s first year at Fels.)
“When I was at Cardinal Dougherty, we were ‘the hunted’ most of the time,” Heimerdinger said. “We were always a team with a target on our backs that other teams were coming after, which is a clear sign of a successful program. When I first got to Fels, we were just another one of the hunters, much like it was when I first got to Dougherty in the early eighties. Now it’s starting to shift dynamics a bit. We feel like we’re becoming one of the hunted again.”
Fels won’t fully be one of the hunted until they can find some semblance of playoff success in the later rounds. Against Bartram, the Panthers got off on the wrong foot with a 2-for-13 first quarter and never quite righted the ship, posting a 16-for-62 (26 percent) mark from the field. They also missed nine free throws and turned the ball over 21 times, which certainly helped Bartram withstand a late fourth-quarter Fels rally, when the Panthers cut a lead that was as large as 17 down to five with a quick barrage of three-pointers.
Top-scoring threats Nijay Kelly (6-for-20, 13 points), T.J. Scott (eight points) and Casey Bell (three points, 1-for-8 from three-point range) were all frustrated by the much taller, more physical Braves. Kelly had no problems getting to the rim, but finishing was obviously a problem.
“As a coach, I’m not happy because I wanted everything to be right yesterday,” said Heimerdinger, who also is Fels’ athletic director. “But I am proud of our progress. We’re three years in now, and we’ve kept these kids together and really have them working hard all year round. We want good kids, coachable student-athletes that go on to have future success, and I think we’ve developed that blueprint for success.”
As of now, it’s unclear whether Fels will continue rising up the Public League ranks or regress into the Panther teams of the past. This season was undoubtedly a major accomplishment for the school and the direction that Heimerdinger is guiding the basketball program, but Fels will be hit hard by graduation.
Kelly, also a football star who has received a lot of Division-I attention to play on Saturdays beginning this fall, will be gone, as will Scott, Bell, Kyree Westbrooks and Devon Wilson, who make up the team’s top-five overall scorers.
Holdovers for next year’s squad include junior guard Danil Mateo, who led Fels with 15 points against Bartram, and junior Lester Maddox and freshman James Bishop, who saw significant action in the loss.
“I think we’re built for the future because of all we’ve been through so far together,” Heimerdinger said. “We only had thirty-four practices for twenty-two regular-season games, and we’ve gotten better at teaching them how to succeed without a lot of practices.
“And I think the guys who didn’t get a chance to play much, that will be back next season, got a chance to see what it took for the current seniors to have some degree of success,” Heimerdinger continued. “The biggest thing that made us so successful this season was the trust we have in each other; we’re not that great of a basketball team, but our comfort level with one another allowed us to overachieve.”
Heimerdinger said he and his coaching staff are very specific about what players need to work on in terms of improving their games between March and October. If someone shows up unprepared, then they will be exiled to the bench or off the team altogether. (Heimerdinger cited an unnamed recent high-scoring player who met this unkind fate.) By holding the players accountable for their actions, they realized what was at stake and thus took their responsibilities seriously.
“Our motto became ‘Five is One,’” Heimerdinger said. “We don’t get the types of players at Fels that go on to play basketball at Kentucky and North Carolina, but we do what we need to do to be successful, which really is a tribute to the kids.
“We operated as a colony of ants. One ant acting separately from the rest of the colony won’t get that ant very far, but when working together as a group, that colony will be a force to be reckoned with. Everyone understood their role, and it’s going to have to stay that way for us to keep this thing going in the right direction.” ••