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Interesting story on Our Savior New American

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A little insight to the school that gave us Jamar Wilson and now Tim Ambrose.


Basketball: Our Savior fills special niche


By STEPHEN HAYNES | Newsday Staff Writer

August 7, 2007



Despite its renowned basketball program, championship banners don't adorn the walls or rafters of Our Savior New American High School. And that's the way the coach wants it.


Having spearheaded one of the most successful independent athletic programs in New York, from which a dozen students have gone on to Division I schools, Reverend Ron Stelzer shrugs at his on-court success. His source of pride is the letters he receives from other schools, extolling his kids' behavior.


"The way I see it, we're a school first and foremost," said Stelzer, 58, who in 1995 started the Pioneers, a basketball team maintained through fund-raising and donations. "I'm not out there scouting to make sure we have a great team. What's important is that we have good people who want to follow God."


Our Savior New American is a private parochial school based in Centereach. Its roots trace to the Interscholastic Private Parochial School Athletic League, where it morphed from lightweight to powerhouse with a sudden infusion of foreign-grown talent. That pipeline helped the boys basketball program earn a national profile – and local distrust.


While Stelzer has said OSNA is not a prep school, it's largely been limited to the prep school circuit. OSNA had its friends and neighbor status dropped by Section XI, Suffolk's athletic governing body. That essentially shut out OSNA from playing any public high school in the state.


That's just fine with Stelzer, who long held national ambitions. Had OSNA petitioned to become a member of the state Federation, it would have had to abide by Federation rules as well. That includes a limit on the number of games played and specific start and end dates to the season. Instead, OSNA is free to play where and when it chooses. And Stelzer loads up with an ambitious schedule.


Stelzer, who is also the headmaster of the Centereach school, said that he doesn't do a lot of recruiting, he simply extends his arms to those who seek opportunity. Like the members of his frontcourt, those arms have great reach as the school has 40 foreigners enrolled, eight of whom are on the team.


"So many kids in the world would love the opportunities that American kids have," he said. "When they get that chance to come here, escape hardships and get an education, they're excited."


Few exemplify that more than Steven Yien, 19, whose parents were murdered in Sudan. The 7-footer, whom Stelzer took under his wing, received a full scholarship from Presbyterian College last year.


Stelzer's overseas recruiting began in 1996 when Bob McKillop, then coach of Long Island Lutheran, told him about Michel Lusakueno, whom he had no room for on his team. Our Savior accepted the 6-10 Frenchman and he developed into a standout, earning a scholarship to Davidson College, where McKillop now coaches. After that, word began to spread.


The development of relationships, not skills, takes priority for Stelzer, who performed Lusakueno's wedding last summer.


It's because of those bonds that several of his former players were at the school on Monday afternoon to help out at his basketball camp for elementary school kids.


"I came from a bad neighborhood in Brentwood, and when I came here, Coach helped me [become] a better person," said Tim Ambrose, a 2006 graduate who now plays guard for the University of Albany. "So I like to come back and help out as much as I can."


The son of an ordained minister, religion was always paramount to Stelzer, who grew up in Indiana and played at Davidson, under Hall of Fame coach Lefty Driesell. Before becoming the pastor of OSNA in '84, he joined a Lutheran seminary in St. Louis and played with Athletes in Action, a Christian team that toured the country "using basketball as a missionary tool."


Steadfast, Stelzer maintains his faith, even during trying times.


En route to a tournament in Charlotte on New Year's Eve 2003, the team van capsized on I-85, injuring several and killing center Kevin Mormin. Stelzer's daughter, Emily, was the driver.


"His death was extremely saddening," said Seltzer of Mormin, whose No. 25 jersey hangs framed outside the gym. "It's hard, but if you believe there's a loving God in heaven, you keep your head up."


Stelzer's beliefs dictate not only his outlook on life, but also his coaching style. Although his diverse duties requite versatility, his approach doesn't change. "I wouldn't want to do anything as a coach that would embarrass me as a pastor," he chuckled.


He keeps the yelling to a minimum and prohibits profanity, even in the locker room. With a semi-martinet style, Stelzer straddles the line between caring teacher and demanding sensei.


"He's sort of laidback, but he's really strict and competitive," said his son Will, 24, who played for him and plans to join the seminary. "He's calm, but he can get fired up sometimes."


Although the coach is demure, he might have reason to be excited this fall, as his roster will boast Sudanese stalwarts John Riek and Teeng Akol. Riek, whom some scouts have compared to Greg Oden, is a 7-2 junior and is widely regarded as the third-best center prospect in the nation, and Akol, the 6-10 forward, already has college coaches salivating.


Although Stelzer likes to run an up-tempo offense, Our Savior will have one of the biggest lineups in the country.


"We may be very, very good next season," said Stelzer with a mirthful smile, before leading the eager camp participants in pre-practice prayer. "God willing."

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