Raider basketball last year was wild. The team made it into the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Tournament on – and won the whole thing. It’s the team’s third national title (the other two were in 94-95 and 14-15).
What happened next was equally as incredible and unexpected. Former Raider Head Ball Coach Steve DeMeo accepted the position as head coach of the Raiders – and the team started this season with a big target on its back. They’re the number one-ranked squad in the country.
“It’s an honor that people respect what we are doing here,” Coach DeMeo said, “we have to live up to that every day in practice. I think the guys have handled it pretty well. I think a lot of teams don’t know how to handle it. Teams are going to give us their best shot every time we step on the court.”
The coaching philosophy begins in the office, where I first met coach who was cutting up with the assistant coaches he’s brought on board while they planned practice. The mood may be relaxed and fun, but the coaches leave the room with a specific mission in mind – down to the number of drills the players will run. Before their three-game homestand last weekend, that meant an emphasis on reducing the risk of overexertion.
Despite the tight turnaround of three games in three days – the raiders emerged unscathed. It’s good practice for the postseason tournament – one of the assistants remarked to me before the games were played, starting on November 4th. “It’s good practice for the coaches too.”
The victories are a positive indicator for this year’s team. A DeMeo-lead Raider team has never lost more than six games in a season. The head ball coach himself racked up a record of 170-27 (86%) over his six years in Niceville.
Coach Steve DeMeo didn’t play basketball in high school and played on the JV team for his college. It wasn’t until after college was done that his life and the sport melded into one. After graduation, DeMeo worked on Wall Street in New York City and took up an unpaid assistant coach spot at a college around the corner from his parents’ house. That was enough for him, he was hooked. Besides, he said, “I couldn’t do this [finance job] for 30 or 40 years.”He quit his job in finance and put his whole effort into coaching – teaching and doing other jobs on the side to make sure he made ends meet. He remembers telling his parents what he wanted to do – coach basketball. The reception was… lukewarm. “How are you going to live?” his parents asked. But, he took the job. After two or three years, he was able to get a full time coaching job at Monroe College, in The Bronx.
After his time with Monroe College – DeMeo coached at the following places before he made it to Northwest Florida State College
After his national championship at the junior college level with Northwest Florida State College, Coach DeMeo took an assistant position at St. John’s in New York City and then moved on to East Carolina University in a similar role. He said he came back to the beach because it was just the right time – he doesn’t have a need to coach D-I. “Right time, right place, right support with Dr. Stephenson and Ramsey and everyone else in the administration. It’s just a good place to live,” Coach DeMeo said. He thought about taking the job in 2021 when it opened up – but opted for another year in North Carolina. “I got the call from doc [Dr. Stephenson] and Ramsey and said, ‘I’d love to be a head coach again and run my own show again’ and just have some fun with it,” he added, “The first time I was here, I was thinking, ‘hey – I gotta get back to D-I.’ I’m not telling you that I’m not going to make another move, cause you never just know in this business, but there’s not the same urgency to do it.”
Coach DeMeo plans to mold the Raiders in the form of the most popular team in Basketball to emulate – the Golden State Warriors. “We are definitely not them, but we like to play similar to that. [We like to make] extra passes, and we like to play guys on the court who can dribble, pass and shoot.”
Above all, he wants everyone to have fun. After all, its the best selling point you make make to the players who will sign their name on the dotted line and the fans who will come to watch them play. “One of my first recruits, Jaylen Jackson, we did an hour-long presentation for him in a lobby of a hotel and and at the end of the thing I asked, ‘do you have any questions?’” Jackson just had one – ‘are we going to have fun?’ That moment stuck in DeMeo’s head. “You want to have fun at your job, you want to have fun on the court,” said DeMeo, “I want to have more fun with this than I’ve ever had before.”
The Northwest Florida State Coaching Staff’s fun philosophy (fun-losophy?) has already led to higher than average scores for DeMeo’s Raiders. On their opening night, they were able to drop 89 points. For reference, the average number of points scored by a college team last year was about 68 points. “We like to give the fans something to cheer about – and with the acoustics [in Raider Arena] are pretty good when we get it crowded,” DeMeo added.
During DeMeo’s last tenure at Northwest Florida State, all 42 of the players who played for him went on to play Division I basketball. It’s not an accident that it happened, but it is not something coach gives himself, the players or even the coaching staff credit for.
“The infrastructure here, from the president to vice presidents and administration, the professors to the volunteers who work here and the athletic director Ramsey Ross – everyone plays a part in these guys going on [to Division I schools],” DeMeo said, “Obviously, Chris Duarte, who plays for the Pacers, that’s the guy on Front Street. We have other people like JayVeon Hamlin Who played at North Texas and now plays overseas and Trey Diggs went to Bowling Green State University. Many guys are coming through here who know what they want.”