Jason Harrigan stood, feet planted firmly on the practice court at Cardinal O'Hara as he watched his Lions run drills while his aptly-colored sneakers complemented the nostalgia coming from his mouth.
Harrigan, the new coach of the Catholic League Lions, was still sporting the orange sneakers he wore last season as coach of the Public League and District 3A champion, Del-Val Charter.
"It was super hard," Harrigan said in response to a question about leaving Del-Val. "You become attached to not only the students but the environment and the way things are done. That team has been in my blood for the last seven years, and I'm still attached to the players, still talk to them, still rooting for them, and I can't wait to see what they do this year in the Public League. But this is by far the most difficult professional decision that I've ever made."
O'Hara basketball and its supporters, however, needn't fret. The order for Harrigan's new red sneakers has already been made. It's all part of a process that mirrors the undertaking the 33-year-old coach has begun.
Harrigan is still learning the strengths and weaknesses of his new group, which finished 6-16 overall and 2-11 in PCL play last season.
Jayelyn Peebles, a 5-foot-10 senior guard, led the Lions in scoring last year at 13.9 points per game. Junior guard Chris Johnson and sophomore forward Tripp Pierce are among those who could see significant minutes this season.
"This is Year One, and we're a month or two in, so it's going to be a learning process," Harrigan said. "We just want to be able to compete, because every night you have another team with great players, great coaches, and they really challenge you from a preparation standpoint."
Later, Harrigan added: "We're just trying to make sure that we let people know that O'Hara is here to compete and that we exist in the league as a competitor."
Last season, Harrigan and Del-Val surprised the Public League by toppling Imhotep in the Pub playoffs, Constitution in the Pub title game and then Catholic League power Neumann-Goretti in the district championship. When he took over the varsity program in 2010 (he coached junior varsity the previous year), the Warriors were a competitive team but had few successful playoff runs in the Pub and no PIAA playoff appearances.
In 2015, however, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted to begin the process of closing Del-Val for academic and management shortcomings.
With the status of the school's charter still in doubt, Harrigan said the instability of the situation at Del-Val, along with the commitment shown to the basketball program at O'Hara, influenced his decision.
"Had that [the instability] not been a part of it, then I probably wouldn't have done it," he said. "But it was a mixture of that and the opportunity here [at O'Hara]. From the alumni and the administration, they convinced me that they really, really want to turn it around and that any way they could support me they would. … While it was still a super-difficult decision that I went back and forth with constantly, it was something that I felt for my future and for what I want to do, it was a good move for me."
Harrigan remains a teacher at Del-Val, where he had taught math for six years but now teaches a careers class aimed at career exploration.
Decisions about the future of his own teaching career have yet to be made. And even though the color of his sneakers do not yet reflect it, Harrigan's feet are firmly planted at Cardinal O'Hara.
"That's what I've been wearing for the past seven years, so I'm getting accustomed to [the change]," Harrigan said. "But I will say while we're still figuring out the basketball, and we don't know what's going to happen on the court, I do think that the response from the players and supporters of the team has far exceeded my expectations in such a short time.
"The kids are ready to learn. They're listening, and we've already built that trust with them, so I'm pleased with that."
Here are some of the other new coaches in boys' basketball:
Conwell-Egan: Eric Kindler
Roman Catholic: Matt Griffin
West Catholic: Jason Hasson
Springside Chestnut Hill: Julian McFadden
CAPA: Carlton Corprew
Del-Val: James Lewis
Elverson: Russell Benditt
Franklin Learning Center: Michael Gardner
Frankford: Jamie Ross
Franklin: Matt Rogerson
Freire: Stan Laws
Future: Ben Slater
Hill Freedom: Trey Gelston
KIPP: Buddy Hall
Maritime: Ercel Ballenger
Northeast: Steve Novosel
Olney: Andrew Jerry
Overbrook: Keenan Rand
Parkway North West: Derek Oh
Philadelphia Academy: John Petrie
Rush: Will McKant
String Theory: Eric Funaro
Tacony: John Michels
Washington: Jeremy Beatrice