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Coming Home Pope’s Return To CLCS As Hoops Coach A ‘Blessing’

Devin Pope (pictured at left) led his Penn State Behrend team to a win over Fredonia State at Dods Hall on the SUNY Fredonia campus in December of 2019. Chautauqua Lake’s Devin Pope poses with head coach Mike Putney Pictured at right) after scoring his 2,000th high school point. Pope became only the fourth boys basketball player to reach the 2,000-point mark in Chautauqua County. Photos by Ron Szot and Lisa Monacelli

MAYVILLE — When he was in high school, Devin Pope was one of the greatest players to ever step foot in a Chautauqua County gym. His First Team All-State and 2,000-point banners hang from the rafters of the Chautauqua Lake High School gym to prove it.

Now, Pope returns to the gym he once called home with a new task at hand, leading the program he helped put on the map.

Pope has begun his first season as the new varsity boys basketball coach at Chautauqua Lake High School. The team’s first game was a victory Thursday at home against the Southwestern Trojans.

“It is honestly a blessing. I’m so grateful for the opportunity. It’s something that I’ve known I’ve wanted to do since I was in high school, to come back and be a basketball coach,” Pope said.

But he didn’t just come back to be a coach; Pope returned to his own high school to lead the varsity program as his first coaching job. Pope was initially set to be the junior varsity coach, but when the varsity job came open, he got the call to interview for it. He shared his vision for the program, both on and off the court, and the decision makers were sold.

Devin Pope (pictured at left) led his Penn State Behrend team to a win over Fredonia State at Dods Hall on the SUNY Fredonia campus in December of 2019. Chautauqua Lake’s Devin Pope poses with head coach Mike Putney Pictured at right) after scoring his 2,000th high school point. Pope became only the fourth boys basketball player to reach the 2,000-point mark in Chautauqua County. Photos by Ron Szot and Lisa Monacelli

“I always wanted to come back to Chautauqua Lake, I just didn’t think it would happen this quickly,” Pope said. “I’m very grateful and appreciative of the opportunity that (Superintendent) Josh Liddell and (Athletic Director) Bryan Bongiovanni have given me.”

When Pope was a three-sport star in basketball, football and baseball at Chautauqua Lake, Liddell was the school’s Athletic Director; he has since taken over as the district’s Superintendent. Bongiovanni was Pope’s high school baseball coach; he later took over as Athletic Director this fall. When the two were tasked with finding a new varsity basketball coach this fall, it made plenty of sense to turn to the school’s all-time leading scorer.

“I am thrilled to welcome Devin back into the Chautauqua Lake community as our boys basketball coach. The knowledge, passion and enthusiasm that he possesses are going to be tremendous assets to our student athletes,” Bongiovanni said.

Like Pope, Liddell and Bongiovanni were also great athletes in high school in their respective sports. Liddell was a standout wide receiver at Maple Grove High School. He set the Section VI record for single season touchdown receptions with 20 in 1998. Bongiovanni was a star on the Fredonia Hillbillies baseball team that won a state championship in 2006. Bongiovanni won a state title as a player and as an assistant coach at Fredonia, and also as an Athletic Director when Chautauqua Lake won the volleyball state championship earlier this year. Pope and Bongiovanni watched Chautauqua Lake win the title together.

“Sitting with your A.D., seeing what can happen if you put the time in and devote yourself to a program was really neat,” Pope said.

Pope is grateful for the support around him, and realizes he is fortunate because opportunities like the one he has been awarded are not often granted to first-year coaches in their 20s.

“It’s honestly a great feeling. Everyone’s coaching experience starts in a different place. A lot of times, it’s not where they went to high school, they are not surrounded with the support that they had in high school when they were playing,” Pope said. “Being able to have that support, to have them as connections inside the district, really helps me a lot and is going to help me a ton down the road, as well. … Already having that relationship built with them from the past, it was such a smooth transition.”

In every sport he played, Pope was a leader, both during competition and after the final whistle. It was his leadership and character that convinced Bongiovanni that he was the right choice for the job.

“Having had the opportunity to coach Devin I can speak firsthand on his drive and passion to not only make himself better, but those around him as well,” Bongiovanni said. “He’s a true leader and I look forward to him helping our student athletes become good basketball players, but even better individuals.”

Pope is not only Chautauqua Lake’s all-time leading scorer, he is also one of the leading scorers in Chautauqua County history. When Pope scored his 2,000th career point on a layup against Salamanca in the Sectional playoffs in 2018, he became the fourth boys basketball player in Chautauqua County history to reach the milestone, joining Jamestown’s Maceo Wofford (2,258), Fredonia’s Michael Heary (2,235) and Maple Grove’s Chris Secky (2,067).

“Yes, he’s an outstanding basketball player, but he’s one truly great young man,” Chautauqua Lake head coach Mike Putney said after Pope scored his 2,000th point.

Putney, who was Pope’s varsity boys basketball coach, is now the girls basketball coach, where he coaches his daughter, Quinn Putney. In addition to the time Putney and Pope spend coordinating practice schedules and team events, Putney also gets a front-row seat to see Pope in another light, as a teacher. Pope graduated Penn State Behrend with a degree in Early Childhood Education, and now is in his first year as a fourth grade teacher at Westfield Academy. He teaches down the hall from Putney, a longtime elementary school teacher at Westfield himself.

“I think I’ve talked to him more now since I’ve started teaching than I did when I was in high school,” Pope said. He noted that he and Putney have stressed the importance of both the boys and girls basketball programs working together to build and maintain a positive basketball culture at Chautauqua Lake.

“Hard work goes a long way. I tell everyone that I love this. I never get bored of this,” Pope said.

The Chautauqua Lake program has never seen another player like Devin Pope, but he feels that being a teacher prepares him for coaching players of all levels. Pope believes that maintaining positive relationships with players, showing them that you trust them, and showing how much you care will resonate with players of all levels of ability, similar to how it benefits students to receive the same from their teacher. He hopes that his level of dedication can carry the program to new heights.

“One thing about me, I learned my passion quickly. My passion really became teaching and coaching,” Pope said. “It’s everything that I’ve wanted. Now that I’m in that spot, I’m running with it as hard as I can. I know it’s a marathon, not a sprint, but if I could sprint a marathon, I’m doing it right now.”

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