Blue Chip Coach
Barry Kirsch snaps Carroll girls’ basketball out of its 25-year funk.
It’s the Saturday before Catholic Schools Week at Radnor’s Archbishop John Carroll High School, which is hosting the 21st annual Blue Chip Girls Basketball Shootout. At an event that attracts the nation’s top coaches, Carroll’s Barry Kirsch has just taken a knee and called a time-out in a game against Delaware’s Ursuline Academy. Gum cracking away, the 63-year-old coach sends a stern message with his ice-blue eyes.
Kirsch’s long-sleeved gray shirt hints at his business-like approach. But once his girls return to the floor, he’s pure blue collar, and his unmistakably persistent, encouraging voice resonates through a thickly packed gym—much as it has for 40-plus years.
Amid now-cooling rumors the Arch-diocese of Philadelphia will close Carroll, or sell the valuable land it sits on, Kirsch has kept cracking like the gum he says he can’t coach or teach without. “My mouth gets too dry,” he says.
The 31 scholarships in 12 years say it all. But with typical modesty, Kirsch (who commutes to Carroll from West Chester) rejects the credit. “It speaks well of the great kids we get,” he says. “I’d be vain to think otherwise.”
Two years ago, six signed: Brooke Cornish (Florida), Eronge Stovall (Vir-ginia), Tara Lapetina (La Salle), Danielle Costantino (Rider), Jess Pearson (Holy Cross) and Molly Klusek (Scranton). Last season, with five sophomores and four freshmen, no one at Carroll (20-7) was old enough to get recruited—yet.
Pre-Kirsch, Carroll girls had won the Catholic League title just twice, in 1974 and 1979. Now they’ve won three of the last six, in 2000, 2003 and 2004. One definite difference is a more difficult schedule. New York, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore are regular road trips. Christmas is usually spent in Florida. “In our best years, we’ve lost five games,” Kirsch says. “We’re playing the best teams in the country.”
As the schedule has become tougher, admittedly the coach has become softer. Kirsch agrees he couldn’t have coached girls 30 years ago, when he was Carroll’s boys’ coach. Time has mellowed him, and he is a grandfather—Julia is a year old.
“Now maybe I get the same results because of reputation and tradition,” he rationalizes. “I don’t have to command as much attention, or I get it on a gentler basis. I’ve learned sugar gets you much more than vinegar, and that it’s far better to think first, then react.”
The Ursuline game, a come-from-behind 65-52 Carroll victory, was a perfect example. Carroll trailed the now three-time defending Delaware state champions 19-13 after the first quarter. The Pats made it 34-32 by the half, then after falling behind 39-32 in the third, Kirsch took that knee and called time-out. “They got an earful,” he admits.
With 4:25 left in the quarter, Carroll tied it at 39. Ursuline, which is led by one of the nation’s top recruits, Elena Delle Donne, combusted. In a fourth-quarter run, Carroll’s Katie Holzer scored twice, then Lauren Comly added a reverse layup for a 48-43 lead. When Kerri Shields took a defensive rebound, ran the floor and sunk a three-pointer, Carroll led 53-43. “When they became confused [with a second-half press], I knew we had the game won,” Kirsch says.
A Villanova graduate, Kirsch arrived on the Main Line from Clearfield, a town northwest of State College. He made the basketball team freshman year, but not as a sophomore. After graduating, he spent three years at Bishop Kenrick.
Living in Bryn Mawr, Kirsch came to Carroll for the 1968-’69 school year. He taught math and coached the freshman boys’ team. The next year he became the boys’ varsity coach, a position he held until 1981. Kirsch also coached baseball at Carroll from 1968 to 1974 and was an assistant baseball coach at St. Joseph’s University from 1974 to 1980.
Kirsch was out of coaching when, in 1987, his wife, Terri, talked him into taking over daughter Mary Anne’s team at St. Agnes in West Chester. Four years later, St. Agnes was the Archdiocesan champion. “I always felt a voice inside telling me there was something missing,” he says.
When Linus McGinty, one of Kirsch’s former boys’ assistants, became Carroll’s girls’ coach, Kirsch signed on as his assistant. He became head coach in 1994 after McGinty had a heart attack. McGinty recovered and has coached the O’Hara girls’ team ever since, creating a fierce but friendly rivalry. The timing allowed Kirsch to coach Mary Anne her senior season at Carroll; she continued her career at Loyola. Both of Kirsch’s sons, Brad and Matt, followed at Carroll. Other than athletics, algebra is Kirsch’s specialty. He’s tried geometry, but he doesn’t draw a circle well enough—the ends never meet, and his students laugh. In algebra, he’s drawn plenty Xs and Ys. On his coaching clipboard, it’s been Xs and Os.
“I never thought I’d stay my whole career,” Kirsch says of his longevity. “I figured I’d try it, then go into business. The more I taught and coached, the more I liked it. So I began thinking, ‘This really is my field.’”
It remains so.
“There’s a certain high you get when you’re in front of a bunch of kids and you’re performing—and you have to perform,” says Kirsch.