Pennington coach Chandler Fraser-Pauls (left) instructs player Jeriah Mickens during a recent practice. (Photo by Rich Fisher.)

Chandler Fraser-Pauls is only 27 years old and has already played Division I soccer and basketball at two different colleges, served as a Division I basketball assistant and, most recently, as a high school assistant athletic director.

And he now has the position he seemingly spent a lifetime being groomed for.

Fraser-Pauls has taken the reins of the Pennington School boys’ basketball team after a 30-year-run by Bernie Gurick that produced 402 wins, seven state championships and two Mercer County Tournament titles.

Fraser-Pauls, who grew up in Hopewell and Pennington, had a standout career playing for Gurick and served as his assistant the past two years. He hopes to re-establish the Red Raiders’ winning tradition after a tough 5-19 season last year. As of Jan. 27, the team sat a 3-6 on the season.

“Pennington School is a really special place for me, obviously,” said Fraser-Pauls, who has moved from athletics to the Pennington admissions office. “It’s where I kind of grew up and had some of the best years of my life. There’s no better place for me to coach and kind of continue to develop. I couldn’t be happier to be here. I’m lucky to be able to take over the basketball program from somebody I really respect and admire.”

It is also a program that Fraser-Pauls knows intimately from playing and coaching there, which should make for a smooth transition.

“Absolutely, and Bernie paved that way,” said Fraser-Pauls. “He gave the blueprint. And in terms of the Pennington School I don’t think there’s a better mix of academics and athletics. It’s an especially unique place that I fully believe in. To build something here at the level we’ve reached with boys’ and girls’ soccer is possible.“

Fraser-Pauls’ journey has been aided by a litany of supporters ever since childhood, and he has taken positive aspects from each of them.

It started with Lawrence High coach Jeff Molinelli, who began his coaching career at Hopewell Valley Central High and also ran the Bulldogs Basics Camp for local youth players. Fraser-Pauls attended those sessions and immediately made an impression on the director.

“Right off the bat you can tell those special young kids when they’re growing up,” Molinelli said. “He came to our camp for years. He was tough, he was determined. You could tell he was gonna be a special player. It’s kind of cool he took that special playing and took it into coaching now.”

The two had their first head-to-head battle as head coaches over the Christmas holidays in the John Molinelli Tournament, named in honor of Jeff’s late father. Fraser-Pauls was the MVP of that event in leading the Red Raiders to the title his senior year. Fraser-Pauls feels somewhat gratified that Molinelli has gone from being up on a pedestal to a professional peer.

“I was in elementary school and I looked up to him,” Fraser-Pauls said. “He was kind of the big star basketball player around here. So we formed a bond, it was an honor to win MVP at the Molinelli tournament and win that championship a couple times. I kept in great touch with him. He’s been a great mentor to me with coaching things, and just life.

“He’s a great coach in his own right, he cares about the kids first and foremost. It’s amazing. I went from looking up to him to competing against him. I think that’s really cool. It says so much about him that we’re competing but he’s still looking out for me and kind of providing me guidance at the same time. I consider myself lucky. He’s still a role model but he’s also a friend.”

Fraser-Pauls went from Bulldog Basics to the Pennington School, which he attended for six years and was a two-sport star in soccer and basketball. After learning “how to be a good person and to look out for other people” from Molinelli, he garnered further lessons from Gurick.

“Bernie obviously was a huge part of my life growing up,” Fraser-Pauls said. “He took me under his wing as a coach. He showed me that family kind of matters too. He’s a big part of the Pennington family and that matters.”

Chandler went on to play soccer for four years at Lafayette College. Basketball never left his system, however, and he was interested in coaching the sport. Having become friendly with then-Drexel coach Bruiser Flint (now an Indiana assistant), Fraser-Pauls was convinced to play basketball at Drexel as a graduate student. Chandler’s AAU coach, Bobby Jordan, was Flint’s assistant and also a big supporter.

“Bobby knew I wanted to get into coaching,” Fraser-Pauls said. “We all kind of talked about it, and Bruiser said ‘If you really want to get into coaching you probably need a year of college basketball to just learn.’ They took a chance on me, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. A lot of the credit goes to Bruiser and Bobby for taking a chance on me and teaching me a lot about coaching basketball and life. “

Once again, the sponge soaked up the best qualities of his mentors.

“Bobby Jordan taught me how to keep working and always pushing myself,” Fraser-Pauls said. “His whole thing is attitude. I took from him that attitude matters every single day, and you can kind of control that. And there’s no more loyal of a guy than Bruiser Flint. He taught me loyalty, and how that matters in this business and in life.”

Fraser-Pauls quickly parlayed that learning year into a position on Kevin Baggett’s staff at Rider, where he went from Player Development Coach to Director of Basketball Operations during his two years. While there, he had yet another role model in Broncs assistant Ben Luyber, who is now head man at Germantown Academy.

“He taught me how to be organized, and even when you’re at the top of this business in Division I coaching, that being a good person is the most important thing,” Fraser-Pauls said. “I attached myself to his hip and learned a lot of basketball. I credit him for taking me under his wing, and now we’ll be coaching against each other.”

Three years ago, he returned “home” as assistant AD and Gurick’s assistant for two years. Once promoted to head coach, he moved over to the admissions office.

After absorbing so much from so many, Fraser-Pauls is ready to roll it into one big ball and begin serving as a role model for others. He obviously wants to regain Pennington’s winning ways, but has an even bigger goal.

“In terms of our program I’d be lying if I said winning doesn’t matter because I’m the most competitive person there is,” he said. “Winning matters, but it’s not the end-all, be-all. As long as our boys leave here being better young men and citizens of our community, that’s what matters.”

Which is an attitude that hardly surprises Molinelli.

“I wouldn’t expect anything different from him,” Molinelli said. “When it comes down to it, we’re teachers, trying to mentor kids to be the best people they can be. Pennington has a great hire in Chandler. With his dedication and hard work and how good of a person he’s been in the community over the years, I know he’ll transfer that to his players.”

And he’s doing so with the program he always wanted to run.

“This place has been a huge part of my life,” Fraser-Pauls said. “I think I know it inside and out. The people here are special, and I can’t wait to build this to the level I think we can be at. I played soccer in college but I’ve always loved basketball. So to come back and do this at my roots, and try to turn this program into something special and help young men grow along the way is a dream come true.”