By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
First-year Holy Spirit girls basketball coach Tim Whitworth has an impressive resume. He grew up in Philadelphia, the son of a basketball coaching mother, Michele, then went on to star at Drexel University and played for more than a decade in Europe before returning home to work for his father’s commercial real estate company and become an assistant men’s basketball coach under Scott Bittner at Stockton University.
One thing that can’t be found on a resume, however, is Whitworth’s philosophy toward coaching high school kids. And his overall philosophy in life, for that matter. He wants to have fun, and he wants teenage athletes to have fun while they are playing basketball. If they are out there enjoying themselves every day, he theorizes, the rest will take care of itself.
The Spartans began the season with a four-game losing streak, and that’s enough to test any rookie coach, but Whitworth just kept telling his players to trust that as they kept improving, the wins would come. Through Jan. 29 the Spartans had improved to 6-7 and although they lost back-to-back games to Absegami and Cedar Creek, those losses came on the heels of a five-game winning streak.
“I missed the game after being around it for so long and got involved in Stockton through Scott Bittner. I got to know Scott through playing at the 34th Street playground (in Ocean City) and he offered me a chance to go there, so I did that for a couple of years. Steve Lex is a Spirit grad and I got to know him through some mutual friends, so when the job came open he called and asked if I would have any interest. I guess that’s how it came to be,” Whitworth said. “I truly appreciate the value of an assistant coach because I’ve done it myself, but at the end of the day I think all assistants want to be a head coach at some point. So when this opportunity came about I figured I would give it a shot and see what happened. My mother was a longtime high school girls basketball coach in Philadelphia at Nazareth Academy, so I grew up around the high school gym. My brothers and sister and I were in there all the time and I have some awesome memories from being in there. So to give my kids the same kind of environment that I grew up in I thought would be pretty cool.
“The appeal was that Spirit did have a lot of success,” he added. “I like a challenge, and I knew this would be a challenge coming in. The goal is to build this thing and I hope people have a little bit of patience because it doesn’t happen overnight. But I really like the challenge of it and I’m hoping we can build it back up to where the program was.”
“Tim is great. He got a win recently against Lower and he was smiling ear to ear. The girls absolutely love him and I haven’t heard a bad thing about Tim yet, which is amazing because when you’re around high school parents and players there is always somebody who isn’t happy. But we haven’t heard a bad thing about him. He’s taken control. He knew in his interview he had a long road ahead. This wasn’t a team that was going to come out of the gate and win the CAL right away, but he’s plugging along, he’s teaching them, he’s been positive — he’s everything we could have asked for in a coach,” said Spirit Athletic Director Steve Normane. “Tim had played overseas for years and kind of fell back into the South Jersey area with his family. He had been helping out at Stockton and when we advertised the position he put in for it. When I read his resume, I got excited, and when he sat across the table from us the energy was great, his basketball I.Q. is amazing — we just knew he was the perfect guy for us.
“We had some good candidates for that job, and if Tim hadn’t been such a superstar we still would have been in great shape with the couple of other candidates we had. While Tim is awesome, I can’t take anything away from the other people who applied, they were great, too,” Normane added. “This guy has played in Sweden and all across Europe. Don’t think the players haven’t gone on YouTube and watched his highlight videos, because I sure have and they are pretty cool. That guy can shoot, holy cow.”
Holy Spirit was a Cape-Atlantic League power under former coach Dennis Smith, but the program has struggled the past couple of seasons and is trying to regain its footing in what has become a very competitive CAL National conference. The Spartans, who have just two seniors on the roster, are holding their own at 3-3 in conference games and in fourth place behind Ocean City, defending Group 3 state champion Mainland Regional, and Absegami. They are in contention for an at-large big to the CAL Tournament along with teams such as Absegami, EHT, OLMA and Buena Regional.
“When we’re in practice I try to stay as positive as I can with my teammates, and coach Tim is a guy who you can turn the ball over four or five times in a row, but if you’re turning it over while you’re pushing it up the floor, he’s absolutely fine with that. I think that’s something I love about him as a coach — we’ll screw up and turn the ball over, or not box out and get a rebound, and he doesn’t throw a fit, he doesn’t scream at us. He remains calm, and that helps us stay calm. That played a big factor in our turnaround of losing the first couple of games to then going on a streak and winning the next couple,” said Jules Lynch, one of two seniors along with Melody Pugliese. “I first met coach in the spring of last year when we got him around May or June. The first time I met him I could tell things were going to be different. He was going to run practices differently, his style of playing was very different and fast paced. He’s a very different kind of coach than anyone I’ve ever had, which I think was one of the biggest factors in me being ready for my senior year and being ready to step up and try to lead this team.”
Whatever happens the next four or five weeks with this team, whether it makes the CAL Tournament or the state playoffs, coach Whitworth just wants his team to continue to have fun and improve. He knows his first year is just setting the stage for what’s to come.
“One thing I’ll say is we have a great group of kids and they love being in the gym. They seem to be having a lot of fun with it and I like the excitement every time they come into the gym for practice. These kids give everything they have and I couldn’t be more appreciative of that, and I think we’re starting to get better. I came in with a philosophy they weren’t really used to, so anytime you come in with something new it’s going to take some time. But I’m starting to see some strides and that was our goal. From Day One to February and March, we want to get better every day, and I think they are doing that. I’m proud of the improvement they’ve been able to make so far,” he said. “When I started playing, the reason was because I thought it was so much fun and I loved every second of it. While it’s tough when you lose a couple games, at the end of the day it helps to remember why you play. It helps me to remind myself why I started playing — my high school coach was really good at that, when we were in a tough stretch he would keep it loose and fun. You can be successful as long as you’re having fun, and that’s what we try to do. We try to keep it upbeat and try to make it as fun as we can. There is so much on these kids’ plates, all the pressure to do well in school, the kids who are seniors trying to get into colleges. This is supposed to be a release for them and they are supposed to be having a good time.”
Not much in the world of basketball surprises coach Whitworth anymore, but he said he has been a little shocked at just how much community support there is for the Spartans’ girls program.
“What I like is there seems to be a lot of people who are interested in this program,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe the amount of text messages I get after we win a game, from people who are just Holy Spirit supporters. I wasn’t expecting that but that’s been a really pleasant surprise.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays