Football: Under Dennis Shaw, Chester looks for continued growth

It had taken several years, but LaDontay Bell’s football rebuild at Chester High was going smoothly, his Clippers having improved to a point of success in their home Del Val League and beyond.

That’s why it was a bit of a surprise at the start of December when Bell announced he was stepping down as the Clippers’ head football coach.

But rather than extend and build on his coaching accomplishments – and his resume – at the ripe young age of 42, Bell was looking for something else … a continuance commitment. Not for himself, but for the student-athletes at Chester High.

“No doubt,” Bell said Thursday when asked if it was difficult to step away from the football program he had helmed since 2016 to become the school’s full-time athletic director. “It came with some spiritual guidance. It came with really having to sit still and block out all the noise.”

Through such self-reflections, Bell realized the athletic director’s position he’d taken on an interim basis when the previous director left had grown on him to become a new challenge. He saw “a new superintendent, and a new administration” come in after the COVID pandemic, and realized the implications that had on a school he sees as having perhaps too much change. He also saw his football program heading the route of where the boys basketball program has steadily gone in recent years – impacted by recruiters from nearby private schools.

“I knew what we had,” Bell said. “I knew what the basketball program had. I couldn’t say no to that.”

But he could speak very positively of the impact his rebuilt coaching staff had on a Clippers team that just was getting better and better. At the forefront of that effort was Bell’s associate coach from 2022 and longtime assistant Dennis Shaw, who was officially announced Thursday as Bell’s successor as Clippers head coach.

“He’s a mentor to our youth; a straight-up advocate for our youth,” Bell said of Shaw, 34, who was a standout running back in the mid-2000s at West Catholic, rushing for more than 3,400 yards there. “He’s always been around our students. He calls himself ‘The Voice’ … because he’s always listening to students and he’s always advocating with them.

“He’s been very good at that, bringing them from our youth programs and our feeder programs to our high school programs. And he’s played a very integral part in getting our students to stay here. Our program is thriving right now and he’s a big part of that.”

To Bell, it’s that latter gift of Shaw’s that really set him apart, that innate ability to get Chester’s talented athletes to not only come out for the team, but stay in the program. At the top of that list going into Shaw’s first season as head coach is quarterback Jalen Harris, who last year as a freshman broke the school record for touchdown passes in a single season. Harris finished with 2,260 passing yards, 35 touchdown passes and only six interceptions.

As has happened to Chester’s wealth of basketball talent, area private schools tend to hover about athletes of that ilk at public schools. But Shaw said Harris is committed to what everyone sees as a standout sophomore season with the Clippers. Just as Shaw is committed to continuing what Bell forged in seven seasons as head coach, with the rest of a loyal team of assistant coaches around him.

“Coach Bell has always leaned on his staff tremendously,” Shaw said. “So yeah, he’s been the head coach for the last seven years, but we’ve always had a say in what is going on and he’s always trusted what his staff is saying. It wasn’t, ‘Oh, I’m the head coach, it’s my way’ … he’s never been that guy.”

Essentially starting from scratch, the Clippers went 7-23 over their first three seasons under Bell. But in 2019, Chester went 7-3 and almost made the District 1 playoffs.

From there, the Clippers joined with other area schools slammed by the pandemic to form the United X League and play a shortened late winter-early spring season. They won it with a 5-1 record. Back to a semblance of normalcy, they went 7-4 in 2021 to make the district playoffs for the first time, and last season, went 10-2, won the Del Val League and won their playoff opener against Marple Newtown before bowing to Plymouth Whitemarsh.

For Shaw, that’s a nice step, but only a step.

“We’re never complacent with just making the playoffs,” Shaw said. “Yes, we made the playoffs, yes we beat Marple, yes we went to the second round (of districts). And not to discredit any other team, but it felt like we underachieved. So we’re coming back with the same intensity as we would have had if we went like, 0-10.”

As for Bell, after two decades of a career in criminal justice and working with youth in that area, he’s now a full-time athletic director with an ambitious agenda. While Chester might be as much of a football school as it has long been a basketball and track and field school now, improvements in other sports programs are evident. According to Bell, the school is growing its soccer and girls volleyball programs, is studying the feasibility of swimming and lacrosse programs, and will soon regenerate wrestling and softball.

“It comes down to, ‘What is best for our student-athletes?'” Bell said. “This city is really in need of some consistency for our youth.”

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