When St. John’s Jesuit coach Ed Heintschel reached his 600th career basketball victory in January, 2013, he got something of a math lesson from Ed Mouch, who played on Heintschel’s first Titans team and later was one of his longtime assistants.
That first team, back in 1979-80, started the season 0-8 and finished at 4-15 overall. Not exactly an impressive debut.
Some 33 years later, Mouch told Heintschel, “If you kept going at that rate, it would’ve taken you 150 years to get to 600.”
But Heintschel, Mouch, and the St. John’s basketball program found a much higher rate beginning the following season, when the Titans completed an amazing turnaround to finish 17-4 and win the school’s first City League championship.
Over the next 36 seasons, Heintschel’s Titans would produce 17 20-win seasons, 16 league championships, 15 district titles, and six trips to the Division I state final four, including runner-up finishes in 1993, 1996, and 2004.
Nineteen of Heintschel’s former players have gone on to play Division I college basketball to date, and current Titans Vincent Williams and Houston King are headed to D-I programs. Many more have played at the D-II and D-III college levels, and two former St. John’s standouts have reached the NBA — John Amaechi (a 1990 grad) and Brian Roberts (2004).
Now midway through his 39th season as St. John’s head coach, Heintschel (698-211 overall) is on the brink of becoming only the fourth coach in Ohio prep history to reach 700 career wins. He would join all-time leader Dick Kortokrax (877) and No. 2 Joe Petrocelli (831), who are retired, and Norm Persin (717), who is still coaching at Oak Hill.
The Titans are scheduled to host rival St. Francis de Sales in a key Three Rivers Athletic Conference game Friday and, weather permitting, to host Cleveland-area power Lakewood St. Edward on Saturday night.
In terms of degree of difficulty for Heintschel reaching his latest milestone, winning either of them will become more challenging without Williams, an All-Ohio choice and senior who has missed the Titans’ last two games with an undisclosed injury.
Heintschel said only that he hoped Williams would be back soon, but was not sure when.
St. John’s’ next tests would be a TRAC game at Findlay on Jan. 19, and another conference game at home against Central Catholic on Jan. 23.
Heintschel took some time to reflect on his basketball coaching journey Tuesday at St. John’s, participating in a question-and-answer session with The Blade. Here is a portion of that conversation:
Q: Have you taken time to reflect on what you’ve accomplished in coaching these teams here?
A: It’s crossed my mind, but I concentrate more on the next game at hand than what has happened historically. It means longevity, and it means a lot of success. I’m proud of it, and proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish here. You rely on a lot of other people to make that happen.
Q: What are you most proud of as far as your role in this success?
A: I think we have changed with the times to a degree. There is a baseline over which you cannot cross, as far as quality of play and doing what you do. But the times change, and you do have to change with those.
Q: What do you believe is the most important role you’ve played in the lives of many of these players?
A: I think I’ve given them stability. I think I’ve given them consistency. I think I’ve given them tough love. I think I’ve showed them that you make mistakes and then you bounce back. Although losing is sometimes very difficult to deal with, it’s not the end-all or be-all of the world. Life goes on. I think just a positive, disciplined approach to life is what I hope a lot of guys learned.
Q: Your first team in 1979-80 finished 4-15. Did you ever think you might not last long as a head coach?
A: I didn’t really worry about that. We were 4-15, and we were 0-8 at one point. I thought we’d never win. We won 52-50 out at Cardinal Stritch, and it was a tough win. We were playing almost all sophomores and juniors, and I knew that they would be good. I didn’t know how good they’d be the next year, when we went 17-4 and won the first City championship in the history of the school. Then, all of a sudden, I became a pretty smart coach.
I learned all about loyalty and the importance of players in one fell swoop. But, I will tell you that the 4-15 season lasted a year and a half. I was so tired during that season because it just dragged on and on.
Q: Six of your teams have gotten to state, including three to the title game. How exciting were those rides, and how disappointing is it to never have won a state championship?
A: I never in my wildest dreams thought we’d win a state championship in my time here, so the fact that we got down there, and accomplished what we accomplished down there, is all good. When you sit there at the end [of a state final], and they’re giving out the awards, you feel exhausted and you feel sadness. Everybody says to you, and they’re right, ‘If I had told you in November that you’d be sitting here as a state runner-up, would you be pleased with that?’ Of course, you would be. But, you get greedy.
The longer you go along the road, the more you want that win. It’s an exhilarating ride. The first time we got down there I said, ‘I wish every kid I ever coached could experience this,’ because it’s an exhilaration beyond belief to get down there.
Q: Who are the greatest players you’ve ever coached against?
A: We’ve played tournaments all over the country, and the greatest player we ever played against was our own Jim Jackson from Macomber. He was fabulous. A great, great player. Toby Bailey [Los Angeles Loyola] was a great player. William Buford from Libbey was a great player. A lot of the great players we played against were Toledo kids. [Lakewood] St. Ed’s has had a pocket of great players. We just played Shareef O’Neal [Santa Monica Crossroads], Shaq’s kid, last month, and he was a terrific player. I think he’ll be a pro someday. He’s 6-10 and can shoot it like a guard.
Q: Which St. John’s players would be on your all-time starting five?
A: You’d have to include guys like Brian Roberts, Shane Komives, Jay Larranaga, Neshaun Coleman, Marc Loving, B.J. Raymond, Zach Hillesland. I’d have to have a starting 10 or 12. John Floyd was a tremendously competitive kid. I have been blessed with a lot of top-notch, competitive young men.
Q: What has been the most fun about this ride?
A: The most fun, without question, is watching a team come together. If we win a championship, like a district or something, you won’t see me up on a ladder cutting down the net. I just enjoy watching those guys who started out fragmented, and they come together as a team. They forgo some of their individual goals for the good of the team. It is very rewarding, and is by far the No. 1 thing.
Q: What are two or three of the greatest games you’ve ever coached in?
A: The  Scott City championship game certainly stands out. We were down  points in the fourth quarter, and the way we were able to get the clock to stop and hit our shots and keep them off the board was probably the most dramatic win in the history [of the program]. But there have been other good ones. One memorable one was the  Marion-Franklin game that got us to Columbus. It was played at Bowling Green. We were really outmanned, and we really played hard and played great.”
Note: St. John’s trailed Scott 46-28 with 4:27 remaining in the 2002 City League championship game before rallying to a 53-51 win behind Floyd, a senior, and Roberts, a sophomore. That Titans team ended the regular season 20-0 and Ohio Division I poll champions, but finished 25-1, losing to Lakewood St. Edward on a last-second 3-pointer in the regional final.
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