Rookie head coach Dennis Decker is enjoying a remarkable season at his alma mater.
The first-year coach of the Ridley Green Raiders has guided his team to a 13-1 mark and to the PIAA Class AAAA state football semifinals Saturday against La Salle. The 2009 Green Raiders won their second District 1 championship in three seasons.
Decker was the quarterback for Ridley in 1990. He threw for a record 2,737 yards that season, helping the Green Raiders advance to the PIAA championship game before losing to North Allegheny.
"I was ecstatic to go back and coach where I played," said Decker, who was hired in March. "Especially a program like Ridley, with the tradition and my year and the opportunity to go to states."
Ridley will face the 12-1 Explorers thanks to Friday's 19-10 upset of North Penn in the state quarterfinals. North Penn had been ranked No. 1 by The Inquirer heading into the game. On Monday, La Salle moved up from No. 2 to No. 1, and Ridley improved from No. 3 to No. 2. North Penn fell to No. 3.
Last season, the Green Raiders finished 10-3 under head coach John Waller, who retired after the season. In eight seasons under Waller, Ridley was 79-21 and won two Central League championships and one PIAA District 1 Class AAAA title.
"There's always pressure coaching at Ridley. Playing here helps out," said Decker. "The coaching staff that I have in place, they're great guys and take a lot of the pressure away."
All of the assistant coaches from last year are back except for one, making Decker's transition to head coach a little easier.
"All the guys there with me now were familiar with the program and the kids," said Decker. "The coaching staff made it very easy on me to come in."
The new coach wanted to keep a lot of things similar to previous years while putting in a few new things. Decker kept a lot on the defensive side of the ball the same and changed only a few things on offense. One member of his staff is longtime assistant coach and defensive coordinator Ralph Batty.
"Ralph is a great coach. He's been at Ridley for over 30 years and knows what's expected of a Ridley football team," said Decker. "He made it very easy for me. He familiarized me with a lot of things and how to deal with certain situations being a first-year coach."
Before taking on the head-coaching position at Ridley, Decker was the quarterbacks coach at Glen Mills for two years and then took over as offensive coordinator for four years until 2007. He took a year off from coaching because he was changing jobs, and he and his wife were welcoming their second child.
After playing for Ridley, Decker played quarterback at Temple University for two seasons.
Decker said his team deserves to be where it is despite being a young team that returned few players with experience. The rookie coach knew that some of his underclassmen had a lot of talent, and that some seniors would be able to fill spots where needed.
"I don't want to say I was surprised, because I knew the kids had the talent to be here," said Decker. "We had to replace our entire offensive line except one. What we're doing now in the playoffs, the run we're on, is an accomplishment of our line coach Brian Bowden."
Being an alumnus, Decker also knows what is expected of him by the Green Raiders fans.
"The community is behind you 100 percent," he said. "They let you know when you're doing great and when you're doing bad. It can be a great place and a tough place to coach. The biggest thing that worried me was having my wife go to games and have to hear criticisms from fans."
So far, however, Decker's wife hasn't heard many.
Reaching the state semifinals in his first year may make expectations higher for years to come. But Decker does not worry about that.
"It's always going to be hard," said Decker. "The expectations at Ridley are that you're going to go out and win anyway. I don't know if there will be any extra pressure [next season]. You got to do what you can, put your kids in situations to make plays and hope for the best."