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Life-changing coach

Former Howland players talk about impact of Diehl

Staff file photo / Joe Simon Howland coach John Diehl talks to his team during a 2018 game in Howland. Former players talk about Diehl, who was not renewed.

Basketball is a game to most. For Jessica “Ellie” Shields, it saved her life.

Before Shields, a 6-foot-3 standout player for Howland and later at Kent State University, came to Howland High School she was home-schooled until age 12.

She wanted to fit in, but the teenager quickly became an outcast — one trying out for the seventh-grade basketball team. Shields, who was 5-11 at the time, was cut, but former Howland girls basketball coach John Diehl quickly reversed that decision.

Diehl spent 26 seasons at Howland (407-198) with four district titles. In 35 years as a basketball coach, he was 514-289. Diehl was told he was not renewed for the 2020-21 school year after an investigation by Howland schools of complaints brought by parents of players.

Here was a man who helped his players be self-confident in every facet of life, Shields and others said.

“A few years later I asked him what he said to the coach,” Shields said in a letter to the Howland administration that she shared with the Tribune Chronicle. “He laughed with his contagious laugh and said, ‘I told him you can’t chew gum and dribble a basketball at the same time, but I don’t care. Look how tall she is. Put her on the team.’

“He told me that even though I didn’t know the game and couldn’t actually play (yet), that he saw potential in me. He was confident that he could teach me what I needed to learn to be a success.”

It wouldn’t be easy mentoring Shields. Slacking off in practice, late nights, failing grades, missing school. Shields didn’t want to be told what she could do, especially by Diehl.

“I wanted to make excuses and live in denial,” Shields said. “I did not want to face myself because I knew deep down that I wasn’t living the life I wanted to live, and I wasn’t being authentic. I was mimicking people in an attempt to be liked and it seemed as though I could only fit in with the less-fortunate kids. They accepted me with conditions, and those conditions came with a heavy price.”

Shields spent the next couple of years in a constant struggle with her coach. The discussion of quitting basketball came up at least a half-dozen times. Diehl wouldn’t let her. Why did this man care?

He spent summers and countless hours developing Shields’ game. Finally, a breakthrough. Her so-called friends faded to their destructive paths as she became a full-fledged member of the Howland basketball team. Shields had to exorcise her own demons. Diehl had an answer how to deal with Shields’ past, creating a new road.

“Depression, anger and anxiety haunted me, but coach had a way of making those feelings subside,” Shields said. “He seemed to always know what to say, when to say it and how to say it. I finally felt like I was part of something, as though I would contribute to the team in the upcoming years, instead of being the black sheep. Coach and the team supported my new work ethic and new vision for my life.”

She is now a detective sergeant for the Youngstown Police Department. If it weren’t for Diehl’s persistent encouragement, Shields said she likely would have continued her destructive ways.

Howland, in its job description for a new coach, said candidates must have outstanding communication skills with student-athletes, coaches, families, and teachers and administration.

Shields questions who will be the advocate for the girls currently playing for the Tigers?

“There is a sadness inside of me for all the girls who won’t be able to ‘struggle’ under the caring eye and heart of John Diehl,” said Shields, a 2007 Howland graduate. “If we let him go, it is they who will lose out. A question to ask is, ‘Are we willing to ruffle a few girls’ feathers in hard lessons in order to save them or to help mold them into a more solid person?’ For me, the answer is yes. Growing up is painful, but it can also be very internally and externally rewarding. Sometimes it’s not easy to see the lessons in the moment, and we place blame on others instead of looking in the mirror and taking responsibility for our own actions.

“Where would I be without John Diehl’s hard lessons? I shudder to think. But as it stands, I am grateful and I try to give back to everyone I protect and serve every day.”

Angela (Cape) Homm is the Global CFO for Munich Re Digital Partners. The former Howland basketball player and University of Dayton standout has a multi-million dollar budget. She takes command of the conference room, just as she did on the court.

No case of nerves, she relies on Diehl’s influence. You’re down by one and you need to connect on a free throw. Diehl emphasized his confidence in her in those moments.

“He gave me that mental toughness,” Homm said. “I’m the only woman in so many meetings, and all the people are looking to me for all the answers. I feel like his faith in me and everything he put me through and learning this whole, new world or whatever. I use those skills everyday. I can’t put into words how he impacted my life. I’m tearing up a little bit.”

Homm spent her elementary and junior high years at the former St. Mary’s in Warren before heading to Howland to play for Diehl.

She was a ballerina. Homm learned basketball through Diehl as she progressed throughout her years at Howland.

Eventually, Homm became an Ohio Ms. Basketball candidate.

Diehl had plenty of clips from the Tribune Chronicle and videos to give to prospective colleges. Homm said her coach gave her more than a edge on the court. Diehl always gave his time and resources, and left Homm without college debt. She suffered a career-ending ACL injury at Dayton, but her college tuition was paid. Basketball and Diehl’s teachings helped Homm be the success she is today.

There were these sticker boards Diehl had each year for every player’s locker, telling them they took a great charge, made a 3 or completed another successful aspects of the game. Homm said her boards survived a fire to her family’s home years ago.

“There’s so much he gave,” Homm said. “I’m devastated and super disappointed. It’s really unfortunate.”

Maria Dellimuti, a 2020 Howland graduate, is heading to Youngstown State University next season to run for the women’s cross country and track and field teams.

She made the state cross country championships twice in her career, but also played basketball for Diehl. Her basketball coach took a vested interest in her running, wanting to know how she performed each week.

It was a lesson of perseverance that taught Dellimuti to be a better person.

“He’s taught me if I want something, I’d have to work for it,” she said. “My sophomore year, when Mackenzie Maze was the point guard, he would always say that could be me, but I’d have to work on this and this to be able to be where she is now. I just kept on working every summer.

“Eventually, I got that point guard position. With that, he taught me if I really want something I have to work for it, be willing to put in the work and everything will be good in the end.”

Natalie Ashley (Nicholas) Antil, who played softball and basketball at Lakeland Community College after graduating from Howland in 2001, said learning a life lesson from Diehl was a common occurrence as a girls basketball team member.

Diehl owns a farm in northern Trumbull County and had the team up to his property to do some team bonding.

“He was such a caring person,” Antil said. “He would take us out to his farm as a team, and there was an older lady who lived across the street. We would have to rake her leaves for her because she didn’t have anyone to do it. He would make sure it would get done.

“He was a wonderful person. I can’t say enough good about him.”

Abby Nicholas, a 2009 Howland graduate, played softball at the University of Charleston (West Virginia) after playing for the Tigers.

She said Diehl’s lessons made her the person she is today.

“I learned so much from him that I took to softball when I played in college,” Nicholas said. “I went on to get my doctorate in pharmacy. Literally, I took what he taught me to persevere, work hard, do the best I can with what I have. Those skills are from coach Diehl, from all the life lessons I learned from him.”

Olivia Nicholas, a 2012 Howland graduate, thrived off the drive Diehl gave her throughout her career at Howland.

She played basketball at Charleston, a dream she had since she was a little girl — playing this sport collegiately.

“I didn’t know if I could do it,” Olivia Nicholas said. “Coach Diehl would push me to make me be the best that I could. Because of him, I was able to play college ball.”

Craig Nicholas, who coached fifth- and sixth-grade girls basketball at Howland until this season, heard many stories about Diehl from his three daughters. He saw all three of his daughters mature with Diehl’s tutelage. There was no room for complaining about what happened at practices.

“Guess what — if he’s not talking to you, he doesn’t care about you,” Nicholas said. “I told the girls, if you’re not getting yelled at, if you’re not getting corrected, if you’re not getting the instruction.

“Don’t take it personally. He’s not doing it personally. Then after practice, he’ll put his arm around them and tell me this is why we do this. We have to get better as team. It’s not about you or me. It’s about us. He would always say that to my girls. I thought that was a great saying.”

Preparing to play Howland under Diehl was no picnic for any opposing coach, especially former Canfield coach Pat Pavlansky, who now coaches the Cardinals’ JV team. He has no aspirations of getting back into being a varsity head coach, enjoying his current role. Pavlansky coached the Canfield girls varsity team for almost two decades.

Pavlansky and Diehl used to talk during the basketball season, sharing a mutual admiration of each other’s teams. They’d talk about their grandchildren during their rivalry — pitting two of the best girls basketball programs in the area.

Next year, Pavlansky won’t see Diehl prior to the Howland game, as he did for so many years as Canfield’s head coach.

The Canfield coach had similar philosophies to Diehl. Pavlansky remembers when his team made the Division II state final in 2001. Diehl’s team lost in regional play. Diehl came to support Canfield, just as he did many others during his career. It was nothing new, just a glimpse of a man who was dedicated to cultivating a sport and the players he mentored.

“When you lose somebody like that in the profession, it’s not a good situation,” Pavlansky said.

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