On-Campus Report: Blackhawk's D.J. Damazo takes on new role at Iowa's Grinnell College

·10 min read

Editor’s note: This article is a part of a weekly series that the Beaver County Times will publish every Tuesday titled the “On-Campus Report,” where sports reporter Parth Upadhyaya will catch up with former Beaver Valley high school stars who are now in the collegiate ranks.

As a child, D.J. Damazo dreamed of one day sporting a green and yellow jersey and playing under the lights of the old A.J. Palumbo Center.

When Damazo was born in Chippewa Township in the early 1990s, he’d watch as stars like Archie Miller, Jim Cantamessa and others led Blackhawk High School’s boys basketball team to WPIAL titles. Over a decade later, Damazo — now an assistant coach at Division III Grinnell College in Iowa — played a key role as a junior starting point guard for the Cougars on their 2008 WPIAL Class 3A championship squad, turning a childhood fantasy into reality.

“Just growing up in Blackhawk, especially at that time, you sort of felt the weight of those guys,” Damazo said of admiring Blackhawk legends growing up. “It was just a tradition unmatched.”

So, the opportunity to continue his basketball career after his time at Blackhawk at Beaver Falls’ Division III Geneva College was simply a cherry on top of what he already felt had been a great run. But, as a sophomore for the Golden Tornadoes in 2011, a pair of concussions in a week’s span derailed Damazo’s promising collegiate career. Sidelined for the rest that season and his entire junior campaign, Damazo said he lost his identity in a way. Eventually, though, he leaned on his faith and discovered a love for working the sidelines. His coaching career was born.

Damazo spent the 2013-14 season as an assistant for Blackhawk under former head coach Andy Hedrick. From there, he went on to be a graduate assistant at Division III Eastern University in St. Davids for two years before becoming the head coach at Division III University of Valley Forge in Phoenixville in 2017.

After resigning from his position as Valley Forge’s head coach in August (he was "looking for a new challenge," he said), Damazo joined Grinnell College’s coaching staff.

“I’m just so thankful to be here and definitely not in any rush to go anywhere,” said Damazo, who hopes to one day again be a Division III head coach. “... I’m married with two kids and another on the way, so I think the next stop will be sort of a place where we put down roots.”

The Beaver County Times recently caught up with Damazo in a conversation ranging from what it was like playing for Blackhawk after idolizing former Cougars as a child, his time as a collegiate basketball player and how his coaching journey led him to the Midwest.

Beaver County Times: What was it like being a child and watching legends — like Archie Miller in the 1990s and others — come through Blackhawk?

D.J. Damazo: I remember vividly going to the games growing up, and it was almost a given that the boys and girls teams at Blackhawk would be at the Palumbo Center (now called the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse) at Duquesne for the WPIAL championships. We’d just look forward and — not knowing how hard it was to get there — just assume that both the boys and girls teams would make it there.

I remember doing the Drill for Skill, which is (former legendary Blackhawk head coach) John Miller’s basketball training DVD. I remember doing those in my grandparents’ living room as a third or fourth grader, thinking of one day being a Blackhawk Cougar and being able to hopefully lead my team to similar heights.

BCT: How was it to grow up dreaming of winning a WPIAL title in a Blackhawk jersey and then actually do it as a junior with the Cougars during the 2007-08 season?

Damazo: It was a surreal experience. We had a really good group of guys. And we had a group of guys that — similarly to me — grew up (with it) sort of an expectation to make it to the Palumbo Center and even to the state finals. So, whenever we ended up (winning a WPIAL title), we felt like we should’ve done it just because we’d seen it, while simultaneously realizing how hard it is.

… It’s one of my fondest memories as a player and just really in my basketball (career).

BCT: Coming out of Blackhawk, why did you choose Geneva College as the place to continue your basketball and academic career?

Damazo: It was actually a pretty easy decision, because my dad was working there, so I got free tuition, which was a great perk.

Then, Coach (Jeff) Santarsiero recruited me, (and) I wanted to play basketball. And then, I wanted to be at a Christian college, as well.

BCT: What initially inspired you to pursue a career in coaching?

Damazo: At Geneva College, I got two concussions in three or four days in my sophomore year. I was having a pretty good sophomore year and then I got these concussions, and I was actually out for a year and a half. So I was out the second half of my sophomore year and then my whole junior year.

And, obviously, it was a very challenging time in many ways. But I would say, during the time I wasn’t able to be on the court playing (is when) I realized my love for the Xs and Os and the different little nuances of the game.

BCT: How did you bounce back mentally from feeling at your lowest when you had your love of playing basketball taken away from you?

Damazo: As an athlete growing up, the No. 1 identifying feature of yourself is, “I’m a basketball player.” And whenever I couldn’t (play), I wasn’t a basketball player. I think that was a strong wake-up call for me, because I think my values were sort of flipped of who I wanted to be.

I am a man of faith. I would say, during that time, I realized that it’s great being a basketball player, but my No. 1 priority is being a man of God. And I think I really relied on my faith during that time to sharpen my identity and figure out who I truly am.

BCT: In what ways did being off of the court for nearly two years derail your playing career?

Damazo: Whenever I came back, I just was not the same player. I was having a pretty good sophomore campaign. We had a really good team, and I was playing pretty well personally, as well. But whenever I came back, I just was never the same player, in terms of quickness, stability, just several things. And it was pretty tough to deal with.

Not playing for a year and a half, it just really is challenging, no matter how good you are or what level you’re at. It’s really hard sitting out for that long of a time. I couldn’t do anything, stamina-wise. I couldn’t even really get on an exercise bike. I didn’t do any physical activity for almost a year and a half. I think my stamina just significantly decreased.

BCT: How did you wind up as an assistant coach at Blackhawk? What was it like to give back to a program that you’ve said has given a lot to you?

Damazo: Because of my concussions, I ended up being a semester behind, in terms of academics (at Geneva College). So, whenever I was done with my eligibility, I had one extra semester left of schooling. During that semester (and the entire 2013-14 season), I helped with Blackhawk, which was an awesome experience. … It was just a perfect opportunity to stick around and get my feet wet in the coaching business and help out Blackhawk.

I think I had an ability to connect with the players because I was in their shoes like five years (prior to that). And I (once) played for Coach Hedrick and was able to communicate the expectations of the program.

BCT: How did two years as a graduate assistant at Eastern University (DIII) land you an offer to become the head coach at the University of Valley Forge (DIII)?

Damazo: After I was done coaching (at Eastern) for two years, I still had a semester left to finish (my graduate degree). So, I actually didn’t coach for a year (in the 2016-17 season), and I just sort of visited several practices in the Philly area and tried to figure out what was next.

Then, I ended up getting (the) head coaching job (at Valley Forge) … the spring after that. So, it was sort of an unorthodox path, but I’m very thankful for it.

BCT: What made you confident in 2017 — with only two seasons of experience as a grad assistant under your belt — that you were ready to be a collegiate head coach?

Damazo: I think I was probably a little naive and crazy. It was a massive rebuilding situation. When I was (being interviewed), the president of the college basically said, “If the culture of the program doesn’t change in one year, we’re shutting down basketball and you’re going to be out of a job.”

My first, really, two years … I was just sort of cleaning up the off-the-court culture and recruiting guys that were aligned with the beliefs of our program and the school as a whole. So, it was a really taxing first few years.

We went 3-17 my first year (in 2017-18), and then we basically cleaned house and went 1-20 the next year. And then, my third year, we went 12-11 — it was actually one of the biggest jumps in Division I, II or III, in terms of win percentage. So we took a big, big jump from Year 1 to 3, but it was a very grueling three years.

BCT: After leading Valley Forge to a winning record and a postseason berth in the last full season you coached (the 2020-21 season was canceled because of COVID-19), why did you choose to resign from your position in August?

Damazo: My position was part-time at the college. I was working another full-time job there. So, that’s another layer of it. We were doing all this stuff at Valley Forge as a part-time coaching staff, and I had another full-time job at the college — from 8 (a.m.) to 4:30 (p.m.).

I was an assistant to the Vice President of Academic Affairs. So I was taking minutes at a faculty meeting at 4:30, and then changing my clothes and running to practice. And then I was planning commencement and recruiting at the same time. It was wild. It was absolutely wild. Mentally, I was just burnt out from that.

BCT: How did you end up all the way in Iowa at Grinnell College (DIII)?

Damazo: I was only going to leave a head coaching position for a great full-time assistant position. And there were several things open throughout the summer. … I was looking at the high academic schools and wanted to be around a great coach that I could learn from. And Grinnell just checks it off completely.

The guy I work for, (head coach) Dave Arseneault (Jr.), he was (an NBA) G-League head coach for two years. He’s honestly one of the best basketball minds in the world. And (we play) a very unique style here — it’s called “The System.” So we press the entire game; (we) shoot 60 3s a game.

The way I phrase it to everyone is like this: I feel like I’m getting a PhD in basketball right now. And I’m doing it working for honestly probably the greatest guy in college basketball.

Contact Parth Upadhyaya at pupadhyaya@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @pupadhyaya_.

This article originally appeared on Beaver County Times: Former Blackhawk star Damazo takes on new role at Grinnell College

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