Dempsey puts new home Spring-Ford on District 1 boys basketball map

PHILADELPHIA >> For a long time, Joe Dempsey had his forever spot.

Having been the head coach of La Salle High School’s boys basketball program from 2004-18, the Conshohocken native built himself a résumé through his tenure.

Four PIAA tournament berths, being named the 2010 Catholic League Coach of the Year, Class 4A state final appearance in 2014 and 208-147 record were the highlights.

That all came to a screeching halt when he and La Salle parted ways due to new administration policy, ending a 27-year overall stay with the Explorers.

But in just his second year at the helm of Spring-Ford, Dempsey is still in his coaching prime, having led the Rams to their first District 1 final, a 59-54 loss to Plymouth Whitemarsh at Temple University’s Liacouras Center on Saturday.

“Spring-Ford took a chance on me. Hopefully they’re happy with the product we put on the floor,” Dempsey said. “Credit to my staff, my staff is amazing. We got volunteers who show up everyday and work with the kids, mentor the kids and are there for them personally.”

Alongside assistant coaches GT Pufko, Jim Sheedy and Michael Allerton, Dempsey’s Rams enjoyed a 20-game win streak sandwiched between the regular season opener and finale, won the program’s first Pioneer Athletic Conference championship since 2015-16 and locked up the No. 1 seed in the District 1-6A tournament.

With less than a minute left in the championship game against Plymouth Whitemarsh, Spring-Ford trailed by just two points, 56-54. The Rams were close to adding another achievement to a year full of milestones after rallying from down eight at halftime.

“It’s a great place to coach. The kids are terrific, they’re in the gym every day. They work, and getting to the district championship is a big deal,” Dempsey said. “It’s especially hard to win a state championship, got a number of big schools out there who are very good in the state. So to do what we did in the district is kind of satisfying.”

Despite missing the PAC championship last year, Spring-Ford’s players knew they struck gold. Prior to Dempsey’s arrival in Royersford, he had a stint as an assistant with Lower Merion, winning the District 1-6A final in 2021.

Coaching is an art, and in southeastern Pennsylvania, Dempsey has been Pablo Picasso. It took little to no time at all for the Rams to pick up what Dempsey was putting down when he walked through Spring-Ford’s doors.

“We’re definitely extremely lucky to have Dempsey as our coach,” senior point guard Caleb Little said. “His culture and his legacy, it’s been greatly impacting us and obviously we’ve won a lot of games.”

Spring-Ford went 13-9 overall last year, its absence from the PAC tournament was its first miss since 2013 and the Rams reached just the second round of the district bracket. The jump to Year 2 included an overhaul on defense, the group averaging a PAC-best 45.1 points per game.

In a case of Rome-wasn’t-built-in-a-day, Spring-Ford needed time to adjust. But while Plymouth Whitemarsh remains unbeaten in 2023 and has Suburban One League and District 1 crowns, for much of the 2022-23 season, Spring-Ford has been Rome.

And it all starts with that buy-in from players who were more than well aware of the heights reached in years’ past by their staff.

“He respects us and we respect him,” Little said. “We respect his process, his knowledge, everything he knows about the game.”

What Spring-Ford has been able to accomplish ahead of the state tournament was done without a single Mercury All-Area first teamer, second teamer or even an honorable mention from last year’s group.

The current cast — highlighted by sharpshooters Jacob Nguyen and EJ Campbell, stingy forwards Zach Zollers, Alex Lewis and Tommy Kelly — alongside Little and more on a deep roster, the Rams have made the biggest splash in the PAC and came within a couple possessions of winning the program’s first district title.

Against Plymouth Whitemarsh, Nguyen put up a game-high 20 points while Zollers and Little added 10 apiece. With just 15 seconds left in the game, senior wing Qudire Bennett (16 points) added some insurance for the Colonials at the free throw line, extending their lead 58-54 before the final.

Chase Coleman also had 16 points for Plymouth Whitemarsh and Jaden Colzie led the Colonials with 18.

The loss was just the first District 1 final appearance for Spring-Ford, but given his ability to bond and gel with La Salle over the decades, Dempsey may be around long enough for another trip to Temple with his newfound home.

That is, if he’s sticking around. And with the support he’s received from Spring-Ford — from administration, community and within the program itself — it might be safe to say he is.

“It’s just a very satisfying place. The administration has been very supportive,” Dempsey said. “I’m very appreciative of the opportunity.”

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