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Coach meets challenges head on Cancer not slowing Sil Dan's dream for O'Hara basketball

Sil Dan is a man with a plan.

He envisions the boys basketball program at Cardinal O'Hara High School becoming a major force in Western New York. He dreams of the day when the small school in the Town of Tonawanda will be mentioned in the same breath as larger Catholic powers such as St. Joe's and Canisius.

Dan is a big believer that anything is possible. He says no challenge is too great and no obstacle is too big.

This is how he coaches. Now more than ever, this is how he lives at age 53.

You see, Dan has colon/rectal cancer. He learned of the disease late in the summer of 2005.

Fortunately for Dan, it was detected early. He is getting regular treatments at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. He's still not out of the woods, but he's not about to let this slow him down.

"I'm a very strong person, but when someone tells you that you have cancer you can't throw that thought out of your mind," Dan said. "But at no point have I sat around and felt sorry for myself. I take the approach that I'm going to do what I have to do to beat this thing. I'm going to attack this the way I do basketball and life. I'm not going to accept it.

"I use my daughter and granddaughter as motivation. They're just starting their life, and I want to be there to make sure they go down the right road. I want to walk my daughter down the aisle when she gets married. I want to see my granddaughter get married. I'm preparing myself mentally for that day, and I'm going to see it."

Dan uses the same positive approach in his first year as O'Hara's coach. He has injected a heavy dose of optimism into a program that hasn't had much success since winning the state Federation Class C championship in 1994.

"Coach has brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm to our team," said senior forward Garrison Gross. "We feed off that every day."

Dan said any future success at the varsity level has to start at the freshman and junior varsity levels. He intends to go out and compete with the larger Catholic schools for talent. He plans to aggressively scout the seventh- and eighth-grade teams in the local diocesan league and tout O'Hara's athletics and academics.

Dan also believes he has a staff to provide his players with solid coaching. Dave Pfohman guides the freshman team. Dan's son, Chris, is the JV coach. Another son, former Sweet Home and Medaille College point guard Nathan, and former St. Francis coach Ray Hennessy are varsity assistants.

"We have to go back to Basketball 101 and instill the proper fundamentals and techniques," said Dan, who lists University at Buffalo coach Reggie Witherspoon and former Nichols and youth coach Jeff Liebner as his biggest influences. "To me, it's all about discipline and getting kids to buy into your system and the way you do things."

If this season is an indication, rebuilding O'Hara will be a slow process. The Hawks' 4-9 record is due in part to an ambitious schedule that includes St. Joe's and several good Yale Cup teams.

Despite their record, the players are committed to Dan's plan.

"Coach is preparing us for bigger things," said junior forward James Ewing. "He has us playing the best teams because he knows it will make us a better team in the long run."

This season hasn't discouraged O'Hara's players. If there was any frustration, it ended last week when Dan announced he had cancer before a game against Nichols.

"It put things in perspective for us," Gross said. "To hear what he's fought to overcome in his life, you want to make sure you don't take anything for granted. Coach is a fighter, so there's no reason why we can't fight every time we get on the court."

Dan is thrilled to be back in high school coaching following a two-year hiatus. After four years at Nichols, including two as the varsity coach, the school informed him that he was being replaced. His assistant, former player Gregory Plumb, got the job because Plumb is a teacher at Nichols and Dan was not.

The news surprised Dan, who had made Nichols a regular in The Buffalo News' small-schools poll for the first time since the 1997-98 season.

Though hurt by his dismissal from Nichols, Dan has put the bitterness behind him. He's got too much to look forward to.

He is happy to be at O'Hara and determined to fulfill his plan to build a championship-caliber team.

"I know Coach is going to lead our program to success," said junior guard Matt Brady. "It's just a matter of how long it's going to take. If the players play with the heart and desire he has, it won't take long."


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