When Christian Suneri took over the Lions’ boys basketball program six years ago, they were a losing program.
In fact, the Lions hadn’t had a winning season since the 2010-11 season under Coach Andrew Kettle.
But Sunseri, a Lackawanna Trail graduate and alum of the basketball program, was told earlier this month by administration that it was posting notice for his position, and he was welcome to apply for it.
“I was surprised, for sure,” said Sunseri. “I asked them why and got a general answer from the administration stating that they didn’t believe the program was moving in the right direction. After a little bit, they reworded the statement to ‘looking to go in a different direction.’ But based on our record, I thought we were going in the right direction.”
Sunseri took a team that won 12 games over three seasons to winning 25 in his last two.
Another point of concern, according to Sunseri, was the development of younger players.
“We had three seniors, all who made the All-Star senior game, and two of whom are in consideration for division-wide all stars, who started for us,” he said. “Were they 1,000 point scorers? No. Were they the absolute best in our league? Maybe not, but they got the job done for us every game. They played because they earned it.”
Sunseri feels, in his mind, that the previous years were rebuilding, developing the talent that he had.
“These seniors are a testament to how the program developed,” he explained.
“I never had any issues with the players. All the kids that reached out to me are upset about this decision,” Sunseri said. “Through discussions with the juniors, we all agreed that the best players for us to compete were on the court. Part of the reason some of the juniors were on the junior varsity team was to gain experience, because they were going to have to step up next year. We continued to develop them at that level.”
He explained that he was invited to reapply for his position, with administration even going so far as to let him know what they would be looking for in the interview and mapping out Lackawanna Trail’s plans for the future of the program.
“After a day or so, I told them that though I appreciated the opportunity, I would respectfully not reapply and was choosing to step away,” Sunseri clarified.
“If they didn’t believe that the program was moving in the right direction- which I thought we clearly were- it would have been a losing battle,” he said. “I am not going to coach any different. If the parents didn’t like me, or half the kids didn’t like me, or the school district wanted to go in a different direction- that wouldn’t be a good situation for me to be in. For anyone, even.”
Going with Sunseri is his entire coaching staff.
His father, Michael, coached with Christian because of their mutual love of the game, and to spend time together,
teaching and coaching the next generation of Lions. Assistant coach Tyler Rzucidlo will be returning to Temple, and assistant coach Addison Hoffman will also move on.
“None of them are applying,” he said. “If I am not there, they are not going back either.”
Other coaches around the Lackawanna League have reached out to Sunseri, some offering opportunities for him to get back on the sidelines.
“I was pretty shocked when I heard that Christian was not coming back to Trail,” said Elk Lake head coach Rich Emmons. “Christian is a guy that as a spectator, I saw grow up and play in this league, then turn into a coach. Much like myself, Christian grew up in the midst of rivalries within this league between teams and understood what basketball meant to the teams in our league.”
Emmons added, “I hate to see a guy like Christian go because he is part of what makes our league great, a homegrown guy coming back to coach his old high school team out of a sense of pride for his school.”
Susquehanna head coach Lawrence Tompkins echoed Emmons, saying, “All of the coaches in our division have a pretty tight relationship with each other. We will routinely communicate during the season, and also during the offseason. I would consider them friends, in many cases. Christian is a good guy, and I have a lot of respect for him as a person and also as a professional.”
Tompkins also said, “I do not have all of the details about why Lackawanna Trail is making this decision so I don’t want to speculate. I am sure they have their reasons. However, there is a shortage of individuals now who want to coach, and are willing to jump through all the hoops (no pun intended) to take the certification courses the state requires, give up personal time, and essentially coach year round in order to be competitive. The message that a district sends to someone when they tell them that they are opening a position is basically: “Hey, we want to see who else is out there and then if no one else is interested, then we will stick with you.” That alienates a person who wants to coach. It is unfortunate.”
“From a divisional standpoint Christian has put together two really successful seasons the past two years, and the years before that his teams were no pushovers,” Emmons explained. “He challenged me from a coaching standpoint to make sure my guys were prepared and ready to go to work in order to win a game.”
Sunseri said the school was gracious enough to allow him to speak with the players before the news went public.
“I was told on a Monday, and responded on Tuesday.
By Friday, I met with the kids,” said Sunseri. “I let them know where I stood, what the district said, and that this was in no way any fault of theirs. It was presented to the team as a difference of coaching philosophies.”
Sunseri did not want the boys to be stuck in the middle, and was stepping aside to let a new coach come in to them.
“I honestly was blindsided by the decision,” he said. “There was no clear reason given. They could have come to me about developing the younger guys. Instead, they waited until Awards Night to tell me they were reopening the position.”
To his knowledge, there wasn’t interest from the Trail teaching staff or basketball alumni.
“From last year to this year, there was no communication that if we didn’t win the league that I would lose the job,” Sunseri said.
“I do really appreciate Lackawanna Trail for giving me the chance to coach. I will always look back at this fondly,” Sunseri said. “This was my first head coaching position, and though it didn’t end the way I wanted it to, I truly enjoyed coaching the kids. Our record speaks for itself. I am very thankful.”
Sunseri added, “Win or lose, it’s always about the kids, and I have no regrets about the direction we went.”
In response, Lacakawanna Trail High School principal, Dr. Mark Murphy said, “We are incredibly proud of our student athletes at Lackawanna Trail. As a district, we exercised the option to advertise the head basketball coach position. Coach Sunseri chose not to reapply.”
Murphy continued, “We respect his decision and look forward to assembling a coaching staff that can
continue to provide a high quality experience for our student athletes.”