Former J.P. McCaskey basketball coach Steve Powell dies at age 67

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LANCASTER — Steve Powell, the longtime boys basketball coach at J.P. McCaskey High School and a prominent Lancaster businessman, died Wednesday at age 67, according to LancasterOnline.

Powell spent 26 seasons as head coach of the Red Tornado after first joining the coaching staff as an assistant under former coach Pete Horn in 1972. In his two-plus decades at the helm, Powell compiled a career record of 468-245 and led McCaskey to nine Lancaster-Lebanon League championships and three District 3 titles. He retired from the position earlier this year, leaving as the L-L League’s all-time winningest basketball coach with a career winning percentage of .656.

Powell battled oral cancer for more than three years. He coached McCaskey for three seasons despite being unable to speak, communicating with his players by writing on a whiteboard and leaning on his staff of long-time assistants Mike Mitchell, Earl “Papa” Boots, and Willie McDowell.

While McCaskey never won a state title under Powell, the Red Tornado did reach the state semifinals twice, falling to Harrisburg in 2003 and Roman Catholic in 2015. The list of prominent players that Powell coached is gigantic, but perhaps there is no trio more prominent than that of Jerry Johnson, Dustin Salisbery and Perry Patterson, who led the team to a league championship and a run to the state quarterfinals in 2001.

Johnson left McCaskey as the school’s all-time leading scorer with 1,492 points, and earned a full-ride scholarship at Rider University, where he started for four years before moving on to play professionally overseas. Salisbery moved on to Temple University and is also still playing professionally across the Atlantic, while Patterson accepted a football scholarship to play quarterback at Syracuse University.

Other, more-recent standouts under Powell include Kobe Gantz, who led the Red Tornado’s run to the state semis in 2015 and is now playing on a scholarship at Delaware State University.

There are abundant stories about how Powell served as more than a coach or mentor to scores of players over the decades. His teams always had new sneakers or warm-up gear every season — with Powell sometimes picking up the tab out of his own pocket. He also helped many players attend basketball camps they otherwise could not afford, and even attempted to help former players of his find work after high school.

Powell was a standout high school player for perennial state powerhouse Chester before moving on to Millersville University, where he earned the nickname, “Bird,” for his large wingspan. He joined the staff at McCaskey after graduating with a degree in education from MU.

In addition to his work with the Red Tornado, Powell founded a successful steel company in 1993, and was co-owner of The Bird’s Nest nightclub and restaurant on South Prince Street in downtown Lancaster.

He is survived by his wife of 42 years, Gloria.

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