Back on top: After seven years of close calls, Chris McNesby led Roman basketball to state championship

Ed Morone, the Wire

When you’re the head basketball coach at Roman Catholic, every year brings with it championship-or-bust aspirations, which is exactly why the end of the last six seasons were so hard to come to grips with for Chris McNesby.

In those six campaigns between 2008–14, the Cahillites won 68 of their 80 regular season contests. They made six trips to the Catholic League playoffs, reaching the semifinals three times and playing for a championship in two more; of those postseason appearances, Roman had exactly zero league titles to show for its efforts, making McNesby — a Huntingdon Valley resident and the program’s head coach since 2008 — wonder if his alma mater would ever scale the mountaintop with him at the wheel.

“When you’re constantly knocking on the door the way we were for a couple years without getting over the hump, it’s gut-wrenching,” McNesby said during a lengthy Monday phone interview. “As a coach, you grind it out every year, so when you have an opportunity to get so close to your goal only to see it float away, you have to say, ‘Wow, now it’s another 365 days again to get back to that moment.’ People at Roman expect championships, and it took us awhile while we went through some ups and downs. It kind of shows you that to have a really successful year, everything has to fall into place.”

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For six years, McNesby and the rest of the league watched everything fall into place for Neumann-Goretti, as the Saints won the ultimate prize each time. McNesby and company came tantalizingly close, especially during the 2013–14 season in which the Cahillites marched undefeated through the regular season (a Herculean task itself), only to fall to the Saints by five in the championship game.

However, this past season proved to be different. Much different.

Finally, Roman broke through. The Cahillites went 11–2 in the regular season, good for second place to, you guessed it, Neumann-Goretti. But this time around, Roman was up to the challenge, upending the six-time defending champs by five in the Feb. 23 title game. Then, just for good measure, Roman won the Class AAAA city title and subsequently marched unbeaten through the AAAA state tournament. The state crown at the AAAA level was both a first for the Roman program and for District 12, which crowned five basketball state champions this season between the boys and girls, including a clean sweep for the boys.

After being close-but-no-cigar so many times, the Cahillites finally got to enjoy the finest Cuban.

“Our league, I believe, is the best league in the country,” McNesby said. “It sends a message to the rest of the state that Philly basketball is pretty tough to compete with. For us, it just felt like a huge relief. Unfinished business was our approach, and we spent all season waiting around for this opportunity to come our way again. To get that (league title) this year was really special.

“As far as winning the AAAA state championship, Roman has been around for 125 years, so there’s not much you can do or say that will count as a first for the school. Our program was the first to win a state championship, and that in and of itself is awesome. To win that for a school with such a storied tradition and rich history, to do it for our alumni, it was just really cool.”

McNesby grew up not far from Our Lady of Calvary, where he attended grade school. His older brother, Jimmy (baseball), and sister, Kathleen (three sports), went to Ryan and starred athletically. McNesby and another older sibling, Sean, decided to do things a little differently and enroll at Roman when their father gave them the option. Sean was an all-city football standout, while Chris starred on the hardwood for legendary Roman hoops coach Dennis Seddon, who won 10 league titles between 1989 and 2007.

After graduating in 1995, Chris went on to play basketball at East Stroudsburg. He knew he wanted to coach, and first broke into the collegiate ranks as an assistant at Lehigh and Drexel in the early 2000s. But lack of job security and an intense travel schedule was a turn off, so McNesby went to work as a certified financial planner for Wells Fargo Advisors for a couple of years before the itch to coach returned.

This time, he immersed himself at the high school level, earning an assistant position under Seddon for four seasons before he retired after the 2007–08 season. The job then went to McNesby.

“I feel like I’m really lucky to have the opportunity to coach where I played,” he said. “A lot has to fall into place to get that chance, and I feel like I was aware of the tradition. People have such a passion for the school, and as a former player, I understood that.”

But, as McNesby also discovered, being a head coach at a place like Roman is far more different than being an assistant. And aside from the Roman JV program, this was McNesby’s first head coaching gig, so there were some bumps along the way.

“You then realize that it’s your job to keep that tradition going and continue the legacy of the storied program that it is,” he said. “It’s not easy, because now everything runs through you. Coaching is a very small percentage of running a program. There’s fundraisers, camps, keeping up with the kids academically, dealing with parents and college coaches … as an assistant you can kind of come and go as you please; as head coach, you’re involved in all aspects at all times.”

McNesby has always had good players at Roman. In his first season, he was armed with Maalik Wayns, who went on to star at Villanova and has played in 29 NBA games; but as McNesby found out, most of the teams in the league have great players, but that aspect alone doesn’t guarantee championships. McNesby had to find out how to win in this league, part of a seven-year-long lesson that he has finally conquered.

Now, he lives in Huntingdon Valley with his wife, Lisa, the head cheerleading coach at St. Hubert who has won championships at the national level (“I’m not even the best coach in my own house,” McNesby joked). The couple have three children: Allie, 7, Julia, 5, and Patrick, 3, the latter of whom was a constant presence in McNesby’s arms in the moments following Roman’s state championship win over Martin Luther King, also of Philadelphia’s District 12. One of McNesby’s best friends is Father Judge head coach Sean Tait. The two have known each other since high school (both graduated in 1995) and each has the honor of currently coaching his alma mater.

“He does a fantastic job,” Tait said. “There was a lot of pressure on him when he took that job, and to be so close so many times, I was so proud of him to watch him cut down the net twice, and I know he’d feel the same if it was me. We got to catch up at Chickie’s & Pete’s the day after he got back from Hershey and I could tell it was a monkey off his back. It’s definitely cool, because you get into this business because you love the game and want to see kids better themselves as people. There’s not a lot of money in it, but we do it because we love our kids. It’s pretty special.”

McNesby concurred.

“I consider myself lucky to be in this position,” he said. “For me to coach against guys like Speedy Morris (St. Joseph’s Prep) and Carl Arrigale (Neumann-Goretti) and Joe Dempsey (La Salle) and Sean Tait and Bernie Rogers (Archbishop Ryan), I’ve just tried to be a sponge and learn from all these guys. It’s an unbelievable fraternity to be a part of. As for our team, guys bought in to what the team needed and it all came together. It was our destiny. Everything seemed to go our way, and I told the kids to never forget this. It’s a bond that we’ll all share forever.” ••

Ed Morrone can be reached at 215–354–3035 or emorrone@bsmphilly.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpecialEd335.