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Craig Irwin hopes to lead Shanley boys basketball team to success after 14 years away from coaching

The former NDSCS men's basketball coach was announced as the Deacons' newest bench boss on March 31

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Former North Dakota State College of Science head men's basketball coach Craig Irwin talks wtih former player Gael Bokongo during a January 2008 practice in Wahpeton.
Dave Wallis/The Forum
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FARGO — Fargo Shanley High School has its next boys basketball coach and the name is a familiar one throughout the region.

Craig Irwin was announced as the Deacons’ next bench boss on Thursday, March 31, one week after it was announced that former head coach Tony Paper — who coached Shanley for 2-1/2 seasons — would not return to the program next season.

Irwin most notably coached the men’s team at the North Dakota State College of Science from 2000 to 2008, racking up 212 wins and 48 losses in eight seasons with the Wildcats. Irwin guided the team to seven conference titles and four NJCAA regional championships.

Fourteen years after his last coaching gig ended, Irwin said now was the perfect time to get back on the sidelines.

Craig Irwin
Craig Irwin

“I love what I do, and the fact is when I was approached and had the opportunity to think about this opportunity, it probably wouldn’t come around with the chances of happening again where I could continue in the career with my business along with being able to coach where I still have a passion,” he said. “And that was very appealing to me.”

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Irwin works as an insurance agent by day at Irwin Insurance Services, Inc., his own firm based in Colfax, N.D.

Accepting the job at Shanley didn’t come as an easy decision, however, Irwin said.

“I had discussed it with my wife and I did have to think about things for a while,” he said. “Because like I said, I really enjoy what I’m doing and I want to be able to have balance. But it really ignited a spark inside of me again. I just love to coach. I think the (Eastern Dakota Conference) has some really good coaches, some really good players and talent in it right now, and I’d like to get back into that fraternity. I’m really excited about it.”

Just as excited is St. John Paul II Catholic Schools activities director Reggie Jackson.

“You don’t get a chance to get a coach like this very often,” he said. “We’re very fortunate and excited to start this new chapter of Shanley basketball.”

Jackson said the search for the Deacons’ next coach began shortly after Paper’s exit.

“We opened it up right after it was announced with Coach Paper (leaving),” he said. “I reached out to Craig and I reached out to a number of college coaches in the area to see if they had anyone interested, so there was quite a process to it. I reached out to Coach Irwin to see if he’d be interested. I knew he had been out of it for a while. He applied for it along with a few others. We had a pretty good (candidate) pool last week and we decided to go ahead and get it rolling.”

Despite being out of coaching for 14 years, Irwin still is no stranger to the game of basketball. All three of his children — Blaze, Tawny and Tylee — played hoops at Wahpeton High School with all three advancing to the collegiate level.

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“2008 being the last time I coached, that’s where I feel blessed,” Irwin said. “It hasn’t been like I’ve not been close to basketball during that time. All three of my kids were a part of college basketball programs and all three had good high school careers. During that time, I spent a lot of time in gyms watching their high school teams. I don’t really even feel like I’ve been disconnected from the game at all.”

In all, Irwin brings roughly 23 years of coaching experience to Shanley, a team he believes has potential after narrowly missing out on the North Dakota Class A state tournament in March. The Deacons boys program has three state titles to its name, the last coming in 2013.

Irwin will try to lead Shanley back to the state tournament for the first time since 2019-20, the same season the tourney was cut short due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Deacons finished the 2021-22 season with a 13-11 record and had two players named to the All-EDC team, one of which returns as a senior next season.

“I’ve watched a lot of film, and they were just a shot away and two games from going to state this past year,” Irwin said. “There’s some good players returning, so I’m not afraid to put pressure on myself and say there’s some talent there. I’m excited to work with that talent.

“I know and understand the importance of working with youth programs. I’ve enjoyed that. I think there’s a good staff in place. I’ve heard good things about the coaching staff and I look forward to meeting the rest of them. And hopefully with some of the experiences that I’ve had in my coaching career — which spans over 23 years — that I can bring something positive to the table.”

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Ryan Spitza joined The Forum in December 2021 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Marquette, Mich., a city of 20,000 on the southern shore of Lake Superior. He majored in multimedia journalism and minored in public relations at Northern Michigan University, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in May 2019. While attending college, Spitza gained real-world experience covering high school and college athletics for both The Mining Journal and The North Wind.

Spitza can be reached at 701-451-5613 or rspitza@forumcomm.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryspitza.
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