Last year, Steve Smith coached Marple Newtown to within a game of the PIAA Class 4A final.
But by late August, he found himself out of a job when Marple decided it wouldn’t renew his contract.
So when Smith, in the process of reapplying for the position at Marple, got a call from Penncrest athletic director Chip Olinger a few weeks ago, it was a welcomed positive development.
“It felt like a touch of karma,” Smith said by phone Thursday.
Penncrest has selected Smith, pending board approval, to fill their baseball head coaching vacancy, the school announced Thursday.
The move ends several months of uncertainty for Smith, who was unceremoniously let go by his alma mater after six successful seasons. The last campaign was among the most illustrious in program history, Smith leading the Tigers to 20 wins, a Central League crown, a fifth-place finish in District One Class 4A and the semifinals of the state tournament. The only thing between Marple and a state final was Plum High School, led by the 15th overall pick in the 2016 MLB Draft Alex Kirilloff, in a 6-2 semifinal decision.
Despite those achievements and wide respect in the greater Southeastern Pennsylvania community, Smith was informed by Marple Newtown athletic director Chris Gicking that his contract would not be renewed. A 1975 Marple Newtown graduate and veteran of two seasons at Bishop Shanahan and over a decade coaching the Exton legion program, Smith was at a loss for answers.
“The sense I had leaving Marple was confusion, I didn’t quite understand what the premise was for not renewing my contract, but they make their decisions,” Smith said. “I never really got a full explanation.”
Sources close to the Marple program indicate that Smith’s ouster was orchestrated by parental discontent behind the scenes. Smith was the beneficiary of both the talent — 2016 Daily Times player of the year Ricky Collings, All-Delco and Villanova commit Cameron Mathes and freshman All-Delco Alden Mathes — and expectations associated with the national titles won by the Broomall-Newtown Babe Ruth feeder program.
“We appreciated everything Steve did for the baseball program for the last six years,” Gicking said Thursday. “We wish him the best of luck at Penncrest.”
The connection to a bevy of talented underclassmen also made it difficult for Smith to just walk away. He was awaiting an interview at Marple before withdrawing when the Penncrest opportunity arose.
“I still was trying to figure out the hows and whys of why I wasn’t at Marple and what background lobbying went on,” Smith said. “But I never considered myself leaving Marple until I was leaving on my own accord, and I said that to the boys. … Marple’s my school, it’s my roots, I really never imagined that it would be another way, but this (Penncrest job) is a shiny new thing I’m excited about.”
Smith said he notified each of his returning players, many by personal phone calls, Thursday. His hiring at Penncrest is subject to board approval next week.
The Lions’ job has been in recent tumult. Dan Sardella was in his third season before being placed on leave in the middle of the 2016 slate. His contract wasn’t renewed. Brian Saviski took over on an interim basis to see out Penncrest’s 7-11 season.
In June, longtime Haverford assistant Gerard Breslin was hired, but he resigned three weeks ago for unspecified reasons.
Those events, unfortunate in isolation, have summed to fortuitous timing for Smith and Penncrest.
“To have a chance to get a coach like Smith, we had to seize the opportunity,” Olinger said Thursday. “I’m ecstatic.”
Thursday, Smith expressed “slight sadness” that he and his former Marple charges wouldn’t have the chance to replicate last year’s run. But he’s looking forward to a bright future at Penncrest.
“I never planned to leave, and I never wanted to leave, I was happy (at Marple),” Smith said. “I felt that program was being run well with a good booster program and many good things on the horizon. …
“But I told (my former players) come March, we’re going to be wearing red and yellow, looking to beat you, and I’d expect nothing less in return.”