. @Bonner_Prendie honors coach Tom Stewart on 500 career wins and his decades of coaching and teaching. pic.twitter.com/Q86C3RDtzZ
— Matt Smith (@DTMattSmith) January 28, 2017
UPPER DARBY >> Tom Stewart can rattle off a laundry list of players he coached at long-defunct St. James High School in Chester.
“There were some lean years at St. James,” he said, “but we had some good ones, too.”
Many former Bulldogs were in attendance Friday when Stewart’s Bonner & Prendergast girls team hosted Cardinal O’Hara.
“I’m in better shape than most of those guys,” Stewart joked from the confines of his office after his Pandas suffered a 57-30 defeat.
Prior to the game, Stewart caught up with several ex-players from his days at St. James. Krista DiRomualdo, Stephanie Graff, Carlene Hightower,
Michele Thornton and Alyssa Monaghan were among his ex-players from Archbishop Prendergast/Bonner & Prendergast on hand to congratulate Stewart on 500 coaching wins.
Before the game, the school surprised Stewart with a 20-minute ceremony commemorating the milestone. Former St. James Bulldog and Temple Owl Donny Dodds and Graff each delivered a speech honoring Stewart and a brief slide-show documentary was shown on a projector.
Stewart began his coaching tenure in the early-’70s at St. James.
In 1994, a year after St. James closed its doors, Stewart joined Prendie as a health teacher, and soon thereafter before Assistant Principal for Student Services and head coach of the basketball team.
He hasn’t looked back since.
The pre-game ceremony was a well-kept secret. Stewart’s wife, Susan, began planning the festivities prior to this season. Stewart recorded his 500th win earlier this season, but said he had no clue until Friday. He noticed Dodds was at the game, but thought nothing of it.
“I didn’t know it was coming,” Stewart said. “My starting center at St. James, a guy named Bobby Slezak, showed up tonight. Donny every once in a while comes to a game, but then I saw Bobby and Krista DiRomualdo, who started for me at Prendie back when, and she said to me, ‘I’m just here to see a game.’ I kind of knew then.
“I didn’t say anything to my wife, because she would have been upset. It was nice. I’m not into all of that, but it’s always been about the kids. That’s why you stay around as long.”
Despite the loss Friday night, the Pandas (14-6), the No. 7 team in this week’s Super 7, are having a winning season led by seniors Caroline Manfre and Maggie McPeak, junior Nyah Garrison, sophomore Maeve McCann and freshman Dakota McCaughan.
For old Coach Stew, earning his 500th victory doesn’t mean he’s any closer to retirement. Well into his fifth decade of coaching high school hoops, Stewart is still having fun.
“I was talking to Bobby Slezak and a guy named Paul Van Horn, who was the point guard in ’81 when we beat Roman,” Stewart said. “Like I said to them, when I don’t like to go to practice, I’ll know that it’s over. I really enjoy practice. The games are fun, but it’s when you’re teaching and you actually see what you’re teaching is getting through. A lot of times it’s when the kids come back who played for you, and you don’t know whether they ever got it.
“For example, someone like Carlene Hightower, who is going into the Big 5 Hall of Fame. When I called to tell her she was going in, she said, ‘How did you know?’ I said to her, ‘Because they couldn’t get a hold of you.’ She said, ‘I don’t care whether my college coach comes, but you better be there.’ That made me feel really good. That’s a great feeling.”
Friday night, the Pandas hung tough for one half against the No. 1 team in Delco. Maggie McPeak hit a 3-pointer as time was winding down in the second quarter and the Pandas took a 24-23 lead into the break. The Pandas had all the momentum at halftime, but it didn’t last long.
The Lions quickly regained control in the opening minute of the third quarter, using an 8-0 run. Reigning Daily Times Player of the Year Hannah Nihill and Maura Hendrixson each hit a 3-pointer, and Mary Sheehan came up with a steal and layup to give O’Hara (12-4) a 31-24 advantage.
“We knew they were going to make a run — they’re too good,” Stewart said. “I think they wore us down. They’re quicker than we are, overall, and we made some bad decisions early in the third quarter and they rattled off eight straight points. They were in that spread and they’re tough to chase. It’s a tough one, but the kids played hard.”
As expected, the Pandas were pumped up in the first half. McCann scored nine of her 11 points in the first half, while Garrison had six rebounds, a block and a steal. McCaughan, an exciting freshman two-guard, drilled two 3s.
“We weren’t hitting as many shots (in the first half) and we just needed to get into a rhythm,” said Nihill, who finished with 17 points and two steals. She scored nine points during the Lions’ 22-4, third-quarter barrage.
“They took advantage of that early and we had to make some adjustments,” she added.
Sheehan led all scorers with 18 points and nine rebounds.
“We sort of of played to the crowd, which was rowdy, and we were a little timid in the first half. I remember one time yelling out, ‘Slow it up, slow it up’ because we couldn’t even catch our breaths,” Sheehan said. “At halftime the coaches basically said, everyone’s got to kind of look in the mirror right now. We came out and Maura hit a 3, we got a quick stop and then another 3. … We never really looked back after that.”