When Ed DeChellis became head coach at his alma mater, Penn State, in 2003 one would have surmised that he had landed his dream job.
And while DeChellis did have success with the Nittany Lions — a NIT postseason tournament title in 2009 and the program’s first NCAA berth in ten years in 2011, the 1982 Penn State grad left to take over a struggling program at the U.S. Naval Academy.
The move surprised some, but those folks did not know about the affinity for the service academies that DeChellis had developed during frequent talks with good friend, the late Skip Prosser – a 1972 U.S. Merchant Marine Academy graduate.
“I believe in the mission,” DeChellis said, explaining the privilege of coaching at Navy. “You get great kids here and it is a wonderful place to build a program.”
After a first season that would better be described as nightmare than dream job, DeChellis is starting to see signs of a turnaround.
A pair of two-point November road losses in Texas were reminiscent of the 3-26 season experienced by the Midshipmen in 2011-12, but the team is finding ways to win games they lost a year ago.
A 69-59 home win over Bryant heading in to exam break put Navy at 6-6 and was a good example of the progress being made.
“We didn’t play great, but we played well enough to win and guys made some plays down the stretch,” DeChellis said. “That is where we are different — last year we couldn’t make those plays.”
The contributions are coming from a variety of players as DeChellis mixes and matches based on what the team needs. Juniors James Loupos, Brennan Wyatt and Thurgood Wynn provide leadership on a senior-less roster.
Reigning Patriot League Rookie of the Year Worth Smith and fellow sophomore Brandon Venturini are regulars in the starting lineup and a quartet of talented freshman — led by point guard Tilman Dunbar — are seeing significant minutes.
“It has been a selfless team,” DeChellis said. “We have played a bunch of different guys on certain nights and they have all come through. They have all contributed in some way which has been really fun to watch.”
Despite a 5-10, 183-pound frame, it is the lightning quick Dunbar who makes this team go.
The freshman from Woodbridge, Va., leads the team in scoring (10.2 ppg), assists (5.5 apg) and minutes played (31 mpg).
“Til is a talented young guy,” DeChellis said. “He has not only been able to score for us but he makes other guys better because of his athleticism and speed. As a coach you always want more and want more out of him. You can ask him — I am on him every day.”
Turning the offense over to a freshman is nothing new to DeChellis. He started Timmy Smith and Talor Battle in that capacity at East Tennessee and Penn State, respectively.
Both players eventually matured to lead their teams in to the NCAA tournament.
“My experience with freshman point guards is to let ‘em go,” DeChellis said. They are going to make some mistakes and there are games when they will drive you crazy. Overall, it is an opportunity from them to grow and develop as a player while playing the hardest position on the floor.”
Following the script carried out by Smith at ETSU and Battle at PSU, DeChellis is hoping Dunbar can lead the young Navy program — bolstered by what he says is a strong incoming class — into the NCAA postseason for the first time since 1998 in the not-to-distant future.
“My dream, hopefully in the next few years here, is that we can be playing in the NCAA tournament,” DeChellis said. “The kids that have accepted the challenge wanted to come in and play and be a part of a building program.”