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Simon says: Kids deserve spotlight

Moments after St. Joe's had defeated archrival Canisius, 63-50, Sunday afternoon, head coach Mark Simon stood outside the winning locker room at Joe's, reminiscing about the past and wondering where all the time had gone. Imagine, someone said, you have 122 wins already.

"That's what they tell me," Simon said.

It was typical of the guy. Joe Wolf, the veteran athletics director at St. Joe's, said Simon had no idea he was approaching his 100th victory late last season. Simon is as modest and unassuming as they come. He doesn't count his wins. He counts his blessings.

Six years ago, when St. Joe's hired Simon to replace Tim Lennon, it raised eyebrows in the basketball community. Simon had been an assistant at Joe's in the late 1970s, and later at Nichols in the mid-1990s. But he had never been a head man. At one point, he had been out of coaching for 15 years. He was a well-regarded referee, but a relative coaching unknown.

So Simon admits he felt the heat when St. Joe's picked him over a field of impressive candidates to take the most high-profile job in local high school hoops.

"Yeah, I thought it was important we win a Manhattan Cup," Simon said. "Once I won a Cup the second year, all the pressure was gone."

The Marauders (now 22-1) won the Manhattan Cup in 2002 and 2004 and are a favorite to win it this season. They lost in the final in '03 and '05. They won the state Catholic championship in 2004 and lost the overall title in overtime. This year's team, which sewed up the regular-season Monsignor Martin Association title Sunday, is ranked second in the state in Class A and determined to make another run at a state title.

Yes, it looks as if Simon can coach a little bit. His squad is a joy to watch, the best blend of fundamentals and athletic ability you're likely to find in local high school hoops. They play with a controlled aggression. Simon gives his players structure while allowing them to express themselves, within certain limitations.

"That's right," said senior sixth man Matt Mihalich, whose father, Joe, is the head coach at Niagara University. "Well, I don't know how many limitations there are. We can express ourselves, all right."

St. Joe's uses six players for the most part -- Mike Wopperer at center, John Greer and Devin Dawson at forward, Dominic Cook and Naaman Roosevelt (the school's star football quarterback) at guard, Mihalich off the bench. They're versatile and unselfish, a relentless defensive group and a terrific passing team.

Wolf, who has been at St. Joe's for half a century, said Simon is popular with the players, the faculty and the parents. He said his coach understands that the kids are supposed to be the show. And unlike a lot of modern coaches, Simon encourages his players to play other sports.

"I think it's important for a lot of reasons," Wolf said. "So many of the kids today are one-sport athletes. When they play other sports, they get to have new experiences, meet new friends."

The Marauders made a good impression on a local coaching legend Sunday. Former Kenmore West coach Dick Harvey had a seat of honor directly behind the St. Joe's bench. Simon had some animated exchanges with Harvey, who was watching him coach at Joe's for the first time.

"I'm lucky," said Simon, who turns 47 on Wednesday. "I played under Dick Harvey. I got to coach under Ed Kobierecki and Tim Lennon at St. Joe's. And I spent time with Jim Kramer at Nichols. That's four pretty good guys, and I learned something from each one of them.

"Jim Kramer taught me you've got to let guys create and use their abilities. They're going to make mistakes and drive you crazy, but you've got to let them do what they do best. Hopefully, the good outweighs the bad. Fortunately, it has."

That's what they tell me.


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