Dellegrotti leaves long, loud legacy

Feb. 19—Lew Dellegrotti is sitting courtside and running his mouth, which to those familiar with him is no surprise.

Players, fans and opponents of Shikellamy girls basketball have come to expect the coach's booming streams of in-game instruction and commentary.

Only this isn't that rapid-fire, pointed — and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny — chatter directed at the Braves.

No, Dellegrotti is instead recounting some of the mileposts on a decades-long journey that will end with the current season. His resignation, delayed at least two years when he gave in to the pleas of senior players, was accepted at Thursday's school board meeting.

"I've been doing it for 28, 30 years; I have never been home (during the winter season)," he explained. "I just want to be home."

For now, though, it's an open-ended proposition. One that could close as soon as tonight, when Central Mountain visits Lockcuff Memorial Gymnasium for a Districts 4/6 Class 5A semifinal, or as late as March 23 in the state final. Shikellamy swept Central Mountain twice in division play this season by a total of just three points. Tipoff is 7 p.m.

"I was just glad I was able to play for him for two years at least because I know he was thinking about leaving in an earlier year," said Braves standout sophomore Lily Fatool. "When I heard he was staying, I was just happy."

Dellegrotti loves Fatool, with her coach's-dream combination of tireless work ethic and unique scoring ability. He loves the potential in the classes following hers. He understands he's leaving a lot on the table by stepping down now — but that's the point.

"I don't want to do what my contemporaries always do," he said. "I don't want to leave the cupboard bare. I don't want to do that because I've worked too hard and we've built (a program)."

So now is the time. He couldn't say no when 2023 graduate Paige Fausey asked him to postpone retirement. Nor could he deny this year's seniors — Blaire Balestrini, Allison Minnier and Olivia Solomon — who requested he stick it out one more year. "It wasn't a hard sell," he said.

"I'm really glad he stayed because he's been helping with us since we were in middle school, so it's been a while," Balestrini said. "It was nice to see it out with him."

'Definitely very vocal'

Dellegrotti, 70, leans forward in his chair for emphasis because, honestly, this next bit is his bedrock coaching principle.

"You learn to listen, and listen to learn," he says deliberately, as though spelling it out to an automated answering system for a third time.

Learn to listen. Listen to learn.

That's how he coaches. The in-game adjustments, his loud reminders and corrections, often outweigh praise — in the moment — but that doesn't make Dellegrotti difficult to play for his girls insist.

"He's definitely very vocal, but it's out of love for us," Balestrini said. "He wants us to be the best, so he's going to make sure we do it. When we're not doing it, I think it just frustrates him because he knows what we're capable of."

"He always, like, constantly yelling but he just wants us to play to best that we can play," Fatool said. "He's always just instructing, telling us how to get better."

Rachel (Scheller) Herb was a sophomore when Dellegrotti took over at Shikellamy in 2006, but she was already aware of the Braves' new coach.

"The first time I ever met/heard Coach Del was my freshman year when he was at Berwick and we were playing them in the first round of states," she said. "Del had a voice you could never forget, and it still resonates with me."

The year before Dellegrotti arrived in Sunbury, Shikellamy won its first District 4 championship since 1991. He returned the Braves to the top of the district in 2010 and twice more in the past three seasons. His record over 18 years with the Braves is 238-184. Counting seven seasons at Berwick, he has 339 career wins — all with the same vocal style.

"If you do something wrong in practice, I'm going to tell you about it — I don't care who you are — because that's going to minimize it in the game," he said. "How you practice is how you play."

'You win with defense'

Berwick girls basketball was at the height of its prominence in 1998.

The Bulldogs played for the PIAA Class 3A state championship in March, just two months after going head-to-head with Christ The King (N.Y.), USA Today's No. 1 national team, and All-American point guard Sue Bird.

There was a Dellegrotti at the heart of that success — Megan, the oldest of Lew and Madye Dellegrotti's five children. Megan Dellegrotti scored a school-record 2,311 points, including a 62-point game at Pittston during her senior year that surpassed by one Berwick's previous single-game best held by her father.

Following that historic season, the Bulldogs were without a head coach following a messy school board dispute, and four starters. Lew Dellegrotti stepped into the breach.

Berwick won 15 games in his first season, and the team remained a District 2 contender straight through a 20-win season in 2005 when senior Lara Dellegrotti finished with 1,985 career points.

Lew Dellegrotti's teams were always competitive because they were built around tough man-to-man defense and ball pressure. When he's had a prolific scorer — a Lara Dellegrotti, Rachael Scheller or Lily Fatool — his teams have been their best, able to overcome those with more talent or height.

"You win with defense; a scorer pushes it over the top," he said. "You can teach kids how to play defense if they have a little gumption. You can't teach 'em to put the ball in the basket, to dribble the ball; they've got to want to do that and work on it."

Dellegrotti introduced man concepts to the Braves upon his arrival in 2006, "and they bought into it from Day One here." They went 68-32 in his first four years behind Herb and Kelly Bickel, culminating in that 2010 district title. That championship team allowed a program record 34.4 points per game.

"I was a very offensively motivated player, until I was coached by Del," said Herb. "He taught you to pride yourself on your defense, and we really did."

Among Dellegrotti's most memorable wins were seismic upsets of highly regarded teams forged by defense.

Just 13 games into his first season, Shikellamy turned the tables on a rival Selinsgrove with a 48-36 win over a team that beat the Braves by 31 two weeks earlier. The following year, Shikellamy shocked state-ranked Lewistown, 56-38.

In 2015, the Braves lost to defending district champion Mifflinburg by 17 and 31 points during the regular season before springing a 36-33 upset in the quarterfinals. The 20-win Wildcats hadn't scored fewer than 41 all season.

With a victory today, the Braves would reach 17 wins in a season for the fourth time in Dellegrotti's tenure.

"I'm very ... not X's-and-O's-oriented ... but disciplined in the fact that you've got to your job," he said. "In high school, you can win games if (girls) accept their role and do it. I been fortunate here that the kids bought into their roles."

'I knew how he was'

Herb tore her ACL the day before the opening game of her senior season in 2008, Dellegrotti's third year in charge. She was crushed, figuring she lost her opportunity to reach 1,000 career points and help the improving Braves make a postseason run.

"At that moment, it all stopped," she said.

Herb was ultimately able to play while wearing a brace. She eclipsed the scoring milestone, finishing with 1,137 points, and the Braves went 19-4 while allowing 37.4 points, second-best in program history.

"But not without the support of Coach Del and my team," said Herb, who has coached the Warrior Run girls for five seasons. "He was still tough, but that year he showed such concern and commitment to helping me reach my goals and our team reach our goals.

"He had a way of coaching you hard, but also showed support and empathy when it was needed. Del helped shape my toughness in many aspects of the game, and to this day I am thankful for that."

This is the same guy who wouldn't allow his players to wear colored socks. "When they'd wear two pairs of socks with a pair of black socks underneath, and I found it?" he said. "They all ran."

This is a guy who can find fault despite a 20-point halftime lead. "He'll come in (the locker room) and start telling us all the things we could have done better," Balestrini said, "things to improve on next half."

And a guy who got emotional during a recent game when more than two dozen former players came to pay tribute along with the family members who proudly waved his face on "fatheads" in the stands.

"It's gratifying (to see former players go on to coach), to see 28, 30 of my old players who come back to see me, yeah," he said. "I'm probably a lot more mellow now than when I first got here. They always go, 'Oh! We would never be allowed to ...'"

Perhaps his 10 grandchildren — eight boys and eight age 6 or under — had a hand in that mellowing. Or maybe Dellegrotti has been a big softy all the while, helping to raise daughters who became physicians, lawyers and educators.

"When I was younger I would be nervous about (playing for him)," said Fatool, "but I met him in middle school, so I didn't worry anymore. I knew how he was."

"There's nothing he wouldn't do for us, honestly," Balestrini added. "We have problems with something in school? He's right on it. He's helping us no matter what."

Dellegrotti doesn't intend to retire from his job as Student Services Coordinator in the district. ("I enjoy the work, and they treat me well," he said. "Shikellamy's been very good to me.") and that will somewhat curb what he said he'll miss most about coaching: the camaraderie and the kids.

Dellegrotti stayed on the sideline two years longer than he expected, persuaded to stay by girls who wanted to hear even more from the man they so revered.

You learn to listen, and listen to learn.