Doane basketball: From shambles to success

Guard Jeffrey Sterling is one of two juniors from the Dominican Republic who have helped Doane Academy to a 9-1 start this season. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
Guard Jeffrey Sterling is one of two juniors from the Dominican Republic who have helped Doane Academy to a 9-1 start this season. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
Posted: January 12, 2014

Dan Williamson says he didn't take over a struggling basketball program at Doane Academy.

He says he didn't take over a perennially weak team at a tiny private school with little tradition of athletic success.

When Williamson became the boys' coach at South Jersey's oldest (established 1837) and smallest (67 students in grades 10 through 12) NJSIAA-sanctioned school, he inherited "the worst program in America," he said.

That was eight years ago. Williamson might be exaggerating a bit, but that's probably because he's the one person who fully appreciates how far the Spartans have come.

But others have noticed the Spartans' remarkable progress.

"They've got players," said Burlington City coach Paul Collins, a veteran of the South Jersey basketball scene who ranks fourth on the area's all-time list with 674 victories.

Doane was 20-4 last season, beat Burlington Township, and won a state-tournament game over Timothy Christian in the Non-Public South B playoffs. The Spartans also had a halftime lead over Wildwood Catholic in the second round.

This season, Doane is 9-1 with nine victories in a row. The Spartans have defeated Northern Burlington, Burlington City, Delran, and Westampton Tech. They won the eight-team Delran holiday tournament in imposing fashion - winning three games by a total of 38 points.

"It's night and day," Doane senior guard Chris Scott said of the program's development over his career. "I remember when I was in eighth grade, they won a game against a public school and it was such a big thing, everyone was going crazy.

"Now we feel like we're a legitimate team. It's unbelievable."

The 5-foot-10 Scott, who lives in Edgewater Park, is a top ball handler and three-point shooter. He plans to play at Division III Wesley in Delaware next season.

But Doane has taken another step past respectability and toward prominence this season because of the addition of two juniors from the Dominican Republic: 6-foot-3 guard Jeffrey Sterling and 6-7 center Marcos Baez.

Baez is averaging 18.2 points and is an intimidating presence on defense. In a 52-37 victory Jan. 2 over a Moorestown Friends team that had won the Audubon holiday tournament with victories over Gloucester and the host team, Baez had 10 rebounds and seven blocks in a little more than two quarters of play.

Sterling is averaging 16.3 points. Against Moorestown Friends, he had seven assists - including a couple of the crowd-pleasing, no-look variety - in about three quarters of action.

"The big kid can really play," Collins said of Baez. "He's graceful. He's smart as far as what shots he tries to block. He makes his layups, and he makes his foul shots."

Williamson said Baez and Sterling, who have been close friends since they were around seven, enrolled at Doane Academy after the start of school in September.

Williamson said family members of the two youngsters in the Philadelphia-New Jersey area were looking for a small, private school with a Christian affiliation, a strong academic standing, and a good basketball program.

"It was out of the blue," Williamson said of the duo's arrival.

Baez and Sterling spend time living with family members and also with a host family in the Mount Holly area whose son is a senior at Doane Academy.

"We wanted to come here because there is more opportunity," Sterling said.

Said Baez: "The Dominican is little. Here is big. We have more of a chance."

The players did not compete in basketball in school in their hometown of La Romana, Williamson said, but participated in "rec leagues."

Williamson said Sterling and Baez are strong students and were drawn to Doane in large part because of the school's affiliation with the Episcopal church.

Doane, which occupies 10 acres on the banks of the Delaware River in the shadow of the Burlington-Bristol Bridge, was founded as a boarding school for girls by Bishop George Washington Doane, the second Episcopal bishop of New Jersey.

The school was known as St. Mary's Hall for most of its existence. An associate all-boys' school, Doane Academy, was opened in 1966. The schools merged in 1974, and took the name Doane Academy in 2008.

Doane became a member of the NJSIAA in 2011.

"This is a tremendous place with so much history and tradition," Williamson said.

While Baez and Sterling have made a major impact, Williamson said the bigger development has been the overall improvement of the program.

Doane basketball was "a shambles" when he took over, he said.

"When I talked about what I thought we could do here, people laughed in my face," said Williamson, a 37-year-old Delaware native who also serves as a dean of students and athletic director at the school. "There was no strength and conditioning, no summer workouts, no commitment, nothing.

"We had to change the culture, and now I believe that spirit has spread through the school."

Doane's growth as a basketball program was underscored on opening night, when the Spartans hosted national power St. Anthony of Jersey City.

Although St. Anthony cruised, 74-33, the presence of legendary coach Bob Hurley and his small army of future Division I college players in the tiny gymnasium on the Doane campus was "huge" for his program, Williamson said.

"It showed what we want to do with this program," Williamson said.

With Baez and Sterling planning to stay through next season, as well as some promising talent in the middle-school program, Williamson believes there is no reason that Doane can't continue to develop into one of the more competitive teams in South Jersey.

"We want to be a legitimate program," Williamson said. "It has been a great journey to get to this point. But we want to continue to grow from here."


panastasia@phillynews.com

@PhilAnastasia

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