New coach inspires Chatham’s breakout

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Chatham men's basketball players celebrate with the PAC trophy.
Chatham men's basketball players celebrate with the PAC trophy, the first PAC title in any team sport for Chatham.
Chatham athletics photo

By Joe Sager

When Dave Richards took over as Chatham head coach in early July, it didn’t take him long to realize the team had major potential.

The problem was turning that potential into results.

Well, he and the Cougars found the answers. In just the program’s fourth season, the squad captured the Presidents’ Athletic Conference tournament championship. It’s the first title in any team sport for Chatham, previously an all-female school in Pittsburgh, since joining the PAC in 2007-08.

“It’s great for our guys and really exciting for our program,” Richards said. “These guys really deserved it. The time they put in paid off for them.”

Richards, who spent the past two seasons as a Merrimack assistant, was thrilled to land his first head coaching job so close to home. A native of nearby New Castle, Richards played at Westminster and was part of the Titans’ 2007 PAC championship squad before starting his coaching career at Robert Morris.

What awaited him at Chatham was a senior-laden roster determined to bounce back from a disappointing 7-18 campaign a year ago.

“It’s not always easy to win – you need good players. Good players are what make it happen,” he said. “Our guys had a very good offseason. They were in the gym nonstop and they got better as players and it showed during the season. They came in with the mentality to find ways to become the best team we could. It wasn’t about minutes or shot selection; they came in to find ways to win and have a good year.”

Richards believes competition brings out the best in a team, so that’s what the Cougars do on a daily basis – compete.

“We’ve gotten a lot better throughout the year and that’s due to them coming to practice striving to get better. Everything we do matters to them,” he said. “Everything we do is a competition. Everything we do has a score and a winner. The first day, they bought in and went with it. When you have guys like that, it makes coaching a lot easier.”

The Cougars found the adjustment period didn’t take long.

“It was a big change. A lot of times last year, we were a little robotic. We were supposed to be really good last year and we went through a humbling period, which happens sometimes. It definitely broke us down last year to build us up this year,” Chatham senior guard Isaiah Brown said. “When David came in, he made it easy. He saw how hard we were working over the summer and he gave us a lot of trust. He gave us the keys to the engine and he just lets us play our game.”

One emphasis on improvement came on the defensive end. Chatham boasts PAC’s best defense (65.1 points per game). While that’s only 4.5 fewer points per game than last year’s average, that margin is significant as the Cougars won all three of their PAC tournament games by three points or less.

“We take a lot of pride in that. A lot of our playoff games came down to us being on the defensive side of the floor for the last couple of possessions and we always stayed true to our identity,” Chatham senior guard Will Sandherr said. “We always say that defense wins championships and we really wanted to be known for our defense. A great defense creates a great offense.

“Coach Richards came from a great background and we believed in him as much as he believed in us. Once we started going, we couldn’t be stopped.”

While the Cougars excel with their collective defensive effort (they allowed 55.3 ppg in three PAC tourney games), they know everyone needs to chip in on offense, too. Brown (16.3 ppg) and Sandherr (14.3) produce the most points, but Marc Wells led the way with 15 points in the team’s tourney title win. Anthony Bomar led the PAC at 5.6 assists and 1.9 steals per game. Alex Schoppen had six rebounds and five points in the win over Westminster for the title. Reserves Nasir Alexander, Devin Stedman, Buzz Walker and Shawn Erceg in the three playoff victories.

“I believe anybody on our team could step in and score 20 on any given night, but everybody knows their roles,” Brown said. “That’s the great thing about this team. That’s been great for us this year.”

Walker (junior) and Erceg (freshman) are the only two underclassmen in the team’s rotation. The Cougars capitalized on their experience and maturity in their three PAC tournament wins – 55-54 over Washington & Jefferson, 54-51 over top-seeded St. Vincent and 64-61 over Westminster.

“They were all one-possession games. Each game, we just worried about the things we could control,” Richards said. “We can control our energy, our defense and our communication throughout our defense. We can’t control if shots are going in or things that like. We just stuck to the plan and grinded out every single possession.

“Our seniors have been great about that. When we got the program’s first playoff win, they weren’t satisfied. They came into practice the next day and they were just as locked in. That helps a lot when you have guys who are not satisfied.”

That’s the case now, too, as Chatham (19-9) prepares for its first-ever NCAA Tournament. The Cougars trek to Illinois to take on No. 15 North Central (22-5) on Friday.

“Just because we won the conference doesn’t mean our season is over with,” Brown said. “I am a big Michigan fan. I remember watching the Fab Five when they were freshmen and no one expected them to win like they did. I remember Juwan Howard saying they wanted to shock the world. Well, we want to shock the world.”

Sandherr believes many people may speculate Chatham’s national tournament stay will be short, but that’s fine with him.

“We are playing a really good opponent, but it’s another typical game for us – everyone is doubting us,” he said. “That’s OK. We’re the underdogs and we have nothing to lose. Game after game, we keep proving people wrong. We believe in each other.”