After stint in college, DeCesare returns to high school hoops

He often harkened back for the nights when the gymnasium was finally empty.

Gary DeCesare cherished those moments mostly after leading his team to another victory. He would replay the game in his mind, frequently looking for improvement. He'd consider another way to defense one of New York's top high school players, or plan a recruiting strategy for one of his college-bound seniors.

DeCesare, unlike many prominent boys' basketball coaches, would sweep the court following games at St. Raymond High in the Bronx, N.Y. He considered the time therapeutic, well spent. For 16 seasons as the Ravens' head coach, he pushed the broom, alone with his thoughts, before retiring to one of his postgame haunts for an Italian meal.

"What I realized after seven years in college was I missed making a difference in a player's life," said DeCesare, who totaled 25 years as a coach and student-athlete at St. Raymond. "I took for granted those moments and relationships with the players."

DeCesare, who spent the past seven years coaching on the college level as an assistant at Richmond (three years) and most recently as associate head coach at DePaul (four years), is back at the high school level after accepting the head job at St. Rita (Chicago).

St. Rita, an all-male Roman Catholic school conducted by the Augustinian Fathers on Chicago's South Side, needed a change. Located in a working class neighborhood near Chicago Catholic League rivals Mount Carmel and Brother Rice, St. Rita recently has won state championships in baseball (2005) and football (2007) but the basketball program "limped along," said incoming athletic director and baseball coach Mike Zunica. "After meeting with Gary at breakfast I knew we had the perfect guy."

When DeCesare resigned from DePaul last month, he actively pursued a few jobs on both levels before returning to secondary education. DeCesare said he will work in the admissions department while trying to jump-start the Mustangs, who went 15-12 last season and lost in the first round of the Class 4A playoffs.

"I think both St. Raymond and St. Rita are similar," DeCesare said. "The Christian Brothers at St. Ray's and Augustinians here are about family. Faith, family and tradition are central themes at both schools."

His decision was swift and punctuated by a visit to the school's chapel.

"I've learned basketball takes up a lot of time; you get by when your family is a part of it," he said.

When DeCesare was offered the job Thursday, Rev. Thomas McCarthy, the school president, figured he'd take a few days to decide.

The next day DeCesare arrived with his wife, Pam, and their three children, sending a message.

"St. Rita's a big family [oriented] school," Zunica said. "Gary and his family fit right into our family atmosphere."

DeCesare's sparkling dossier at St. Raymond featured:

• 282-142 record for a .668 winning percentage (16 varsity seasons)

• New York State's Coach of the Year three times (1987, 1991 and 2001)

• More than 35 Division I players; 18 pro players, including three who reached the NBA

• Three McDonald's All-Americans -- Majestic Mapp (Virginia), Kareem Reid (Arkansas) and Julius Hodge (North Carolina State, first-round pick of the Denver Nuggets)

• Four CHSAA city championships (1991, '93, 2000, '01)

• Two New York State Federation championships (1993, 2001)

• He also helped secure funds to construct St. Raymond's state-of-art, 900-seat gymnasium in 1998.

"I take pride in my track record at St. Ray's," DeCesare said. "Ultimately it's about getting players to the next level on scholarship."

"His résumé is incredible," Zunica said.

So is his competitive drive.

St. Raymond, which plays in the ultra-competitive New York Catholic High School Athletic Association AA Division, traditionally played one of the nation's most demanding schedules. The CHSAA, considered the nation's top league by many, exposed DeCesare to big-time games, players and coaches.

"I'm the new kid on the block again," said DeCesare, who was hired at St. Raymond after matriculating from Iona College in 1985. "When I was 22 years old, I coached against legends who were at their schools for 30 or 40 years. I'm starting over, again.

"The Catholic Leagues in New York, Washington [D.C.] and Chicago are arguably the three best in the nation. I've reached out to a few coaches [in the league], trying to get more perspective," he said.

On Saturday afternoon DeCesare was informally introduced to the St. Rita faithful prior to a baseball game against Brother Rice before a crowd of 2,000.

DeCesare and his twin sons, T.J. and Gary Jr., each tossed out ceremonial first pitches.

"My sons fired them right in there, but I fell a little short," DeCesare said, chuckling.

The Mustangs didn't fall short Saturday, upending previously undefeated Rice, 4-0.

DeCesare is already a crowd favorite at St. Rita.

Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA Today, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball, and boys' and girls' basketball. He also worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, for which he ran the Gatorade national Player of the Year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.