By Phil Anastasia
Some of Nick Powell's friends figured he would move through Medford Tech on his way to bigger and better things as a basketball coach.
"I had a lot of people tell me, 'That's a good starter job,'" Powell said. "They told me I wouldn't be there for long. I had different plans."
In six increasingly successful seasons, Powell has turned Medford Tech into one of the most powerful basketball programs in South Jersey. The one-time soft spot on a lot of schedules has become an annual contender for division and sectional crowns -- a team known for its talent, trapping defense and high-tempo offense.
Medford Tech pushed into state-wide prominence this season. The Jaguars won the first South Jersey title in the history of the program, beat highly-touted Lakewood in the state semifinals and reached the Group 2 state title game.
"We're not satisfied with just getting here and coming up short," Powell said after Medford Tech dropped a 56-44 decision to Newark Tech in the state title game last Sunday at Rutgers. "I know we're a Tech school but we're not about moral victories or being considered a flash in the pan.
"We're building a solid program at Medford Tech."
Powell is the Inquirer's South Jersey Coach of the Year in boys' basketball. His team took a major step in its development this season, but also set the stage for greater success in the future.
With just one senior starter this season and a nucleus that includes standouts such as junior guard Eli Cain, sophomore guard Myles Powell (no relation to the coach) and sophomore forward Dennis Tunstall, Medford Tech is positioned to be among the Top 5 teams in South Jersey next season.
"It's all because of our coach," said Cain, a 6-5 point guard who likely will be one of the South Jersey's most highly recruited players in the class of 2014. "He is the best coach I ever played for. He's the reason we were able to do what we did this season."
Powell, 42, is a North Jersey guy. He went to Orange High School and Seton Hall University.
He was friendly with Willingboro coach Jeff Haddock when an assistant position opened up on the Chimeras' staff about 10 years ago.
"We used to play a lot of pick-up games together," Haddock said. "He could play, and that's why I wanted him on the staff. I knew that he knew the game."
Powell was an assistant at Willingboro for three years. When the Medford Tech job opened before the 2007-08 season, Powell said he was encouraged by Haddock and Willingboro athletic director Dave Riley to pursue the job.
Powell said he made clear in the interviewing process that he had a vision for the program.
"I knew I could build something here," Powell said. "I knew with hard work in the off-season that we could create a program that kids would want to be a part of and that could compete with anybody."
Haddock said he's not surprised by his friend's success.
"He knows how to use his players," Haddock said. "He puts them in the right positions and he gets them playing hard."
With the official name of Burlington County Institute of Technology-Medford (there's another campus in westampton, with its own athletic program), the school can attract students from throughout the county. That can be an athletic advantage.
Cain lives in Willingboro and attended Paul VI as a freshman. He said he decided to transfer to Medford Tech for a variety of reasons, but one of them was to play basketball under Powell, a health and physical education teacher at the school.
"He gets up 6 o'clock in the morning and runs with us," Cain said. "He's always making sure we're OK, always asking about how we're doing not just as basketball players but as people."
Powell said it was hard work in the summers that created the climate that has led to Medford Tech's success. The Jaguars have gone 106-57 in the coach's six seasons, including an 80-32 mark over the last four seasons.
Medford Tech won the first post-season game in the history of the program in 2010. The 2011 team reached the South Jersey Group 2 title game.
But this season was a breakthrough. With a young team that featured 20-point-per-game scorers in Cain and Powell, the Jaguars went 20-11 despite a difficult schedule that featured out-of-conference games against South Jersey Top 3 teams Atlantic City and Paul VI as well as national power St. Anthony of Jersey City.
Hardened by tough competition, Medford Tech won a South Jersey sectional tournament that included top seeds and perenniel playoff contenders Haddonfield and Middle Township as well as dangerous Willingboro and red-hot Sterling.
In the Group 2 state semifinals, the Jaguars knocked off Central Jersey champions Lakewood.
That brought Medford Tech and its fans to last Sunday's state finals at the Rutgers Athletic Center -- an appearance that only one man could have imagined six years ago.
Now Nick Powell is imagining even more.
"We're going to get back to work," Powell said. "We're going to fix up a few things. We're going to get in the weight room. And we're going to get back here next year."
Contact Phil Anastasia at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @PhilAnastasia on Twitter.