By TOM WILLIAMS
For the past three weeks we have brought you the comments of prominent high school and college athletes about the COVID-19 quarantine – how they thought about the whole thing and what they were doing with their time.
This week we change the focus and offer thoughts and photos from a dozen prominent coaches.
Gene Allen has won 367 boys basketball games at Atlantic City, more than any coach in that school’s impressive history. Along the way, his Vikings won a dozen Cape-Atlantic League championships, including four CAL Tournament titles, seven South Jersey crowns and ACHS’ only three state championships.
Paul Baruffi has won 423 girls basketball games at Ocean City, the school’s all-time record and No. 3 all-time in the CAL. His teams have won six CAL Tournaments, eight South Jersey crowns and the program’s only state championship.
Baruffi: “When our game was over against Westhampton Tech (March 12) I had a strong feeling school was going to be closed due to the Corona Virus. At the time, I didn’t think it would be for the remainder of the school year. Since the shutdown there have been many challenges. For many the online teaching has been a new experience. I definitely miss the daily interaction with the students and coworkers. We also lost the spring sports season. This took away the opportunity for me to coach track. It is a shame that all the athletes lost out on their season. On a personal level, my mom is in an assisted living facility. We have not been able to see her since March. The people at Spring Oak have done a tremendous job caring for her and the other residents. I will be forever grateful for their care and genuine interest in the well being of my mother. Both of my children were laid off from their jobs. Thankfully my son was recently rehired. My daughter will return soon. The one benefit is spending time with them that would not have been possible under normal circumstances. I even found out that my daughter is a good cook. Hopefully we return to normal soon. It is my hope that people will try and support each other and make things better for the future.”
Scott Betson has only been coaching the Mainland girls for eight seasons but his 168 wins already place in the CAL’s all-time top 15. That includes four straight seasons in the South Jersey final and the program’s only state championship and CAL Tournament championship.
Betson: “This is obviously a difficult time for many people. While all of us are facing struggles of our own, as a coach, I have often found myself thinking about the athletes who had a season taken away from them due to circumstances completely outside of their control, particularly the seniors. My heart goes out to all the kids who missed experiences that they will never get back – people like Kylee Watson, who missed all of her incredible all star experiences, to some of the Mainland spring athletes that I have gotten to know over the past four years, like Ava Zanaras and her softball team. Even those from other schools, like the girls on Middle Township’s lacrosse team (Maddie Barber, Kira Sides, Aubrey Hunter, etc.), who obviously had a strong bond together and must have been looking forward to this season for so may reasons. However, I always preach to my players that we all need to shift our focus to the positives, no matter the situation. So, while I acknowledge all of the negatives that are going on right now, I am choosing to focus on the positives. Coaching is a great passion of mine, but it does require a lot of sacrifice, specifically from my family. In many ways, I am grateful for this quarantine in that it has given me time with my family that I know I will never get again as long as I am coaching. So, all things considered, I think I will look back on this time with mixed emotions, but mostly will appreciate the time I was able to spend with my wife and children.”
John Bruno has won 428 games with the Ocean City boys basketball team, the school’s all-time record and fourth all-time in wins in the CAL. His teams have won six CAL championships and one South Jersey title. He just recently retired as the school’s softball coach after 20 seasons.
Bruno: “The only good news about COVID-19 was the early opening of the pool and abiding by stringent stay at home policies over the first few weeks. The sad news is all that was lost for high school athletes and students. The common theme is a ‘return to normalcy. These student-athletes worked hard to get to this point in their lives and to have it all taken away from them is heartbreaking. But, hopefully, with a return to some senior activities such as Ocean City’s Red Carpet, photos at the farewell sign on at Carey Stadium, after-prom gifts and yearbook distribution, a ‘Last Dance’ Baseball Tourney and ultimately a formal graduation on the field for our seniors, there can be a small sense of normalcy for the graduates in the Class of 2020.”
Ed Ritti and Bryan Chojnacki have been sharing head coaching duties in golf at Ocean City for six seasons and have a 72-29 record, including a South Jersey championship and a trio finishes in the South Jersey top three.
Ritti: “Chojnacki and I hope every athlete and their families are first and foremost healthy. The quarantine is similar to a high school golf tournament. There’s going to be highs and lows. You have to keep your goals in mind, focus on the next shot and hopefully you get good bounces. But if the ball hits a sprinkler head or lips out, you move on and focus on what is ahead of you. We realize a lot of athletes’ spring seasons didn’t turn out the way they envisioned. However, Bob Marley said it best, ‘you never know how strong you are, until being strong is your only choice’. We will get through this. We will be stronger and we will have a greater appreciation of how lucky we are to live where we live, have the community we have and the opportunities afforded to us.”
Teresa Cunniff is a South Jersey Basketball Hall of Fame inductee for her playing career at Wildwood High School who might be headed for HOF status as a coach. Her teams have won 65 games in her three seasons as head coach, including two conference titles and two appearances in South Jersey finals. She is also the school’s softball coach.
Cunniff: “My initial thoughts about the quarantine were being scared, nervous and just unsure of what was happening. After a while of being quarantined we found ourselves adapting to new ways of doing things with new schedules and educating from home with both school kids as well as our own kids. We really made the best of this devastating pandemic by spending ‘PRICELESS’ time with family. Personally I have been doing school work, many projects around the house, cooking, educating and spending quality time with my family.”
Pete Lambert was one of the best soccer players in the illustrious history of the sport at Ocean City. He has gone on to become one of the CAL’s top coaches. His 133 victories at Egg Harbor Township is the best in school history and includes a South Jersey final appearance last season. He will be inducted into the South Jersey Soccer Hall of Fame next spring.
Lambert: “First and foremost, we want all our student-athletes, family and friends to be safe. Awareness of the virus and social distancing are extremely important. We need to understand and realize that sports are secondary and safety comes first. I am confident the state of New Jersey and the Department of Health will implement the safest way to return to sports. It’s looking more like an early July start. I know in our school district (Egg Harbor Township), administration and athletics are preparing in the safest way possible. Our soccer program will be ready when allowed. We will follow all mandated rules and guidelines. At the same time, the boys are ready to get to work. After a devastating loss in the South Jersey Group 4 final last season, we have unfinished business. We are ready with a solid nucleus of players and our younger players, who will need to step up. We graduated a very talented senior class, several who will represent EHT at the next level. We want to return and we are eager to do so. But we want to return in the safest possible way.”
Jason Lantz was a successful basketball player at Atlantic City who has returned to his alma mater as head coach of the girls basketball team. This season he guided the Vikings to the second overall CAL championship in the program’s history.
Lantz: “The quarantine has been a big adjustment for my family. We are used to being on the move. As for the Lady Vikings, it has equally been challenging. We normally spend this part of the year volunteering in the community, lifting weights and going to support our ACHS athletes who participate in spring sports. This year we have spent time calling and checking on each other to make sure that academically and mentally we are OK. Personally, my wife has made me an expert of the ‘Honey Do’ list! I have also been blessed to physically challenge myself by participating with the Fishbein Workout Crew on Zoom.”
Joe Martino has won more games (201) than any boys basketball coach in Hammonton history. That includes the school’s only two 20-plus win seasons and a CAL championship in 2008 that was the school’s first in boys basketball in 58 years.
Martino: “I think the last few months have given me some time to reflect on many things. My thoughts on COVID-19 is that we have to continue to learn more as the virus continues to impact the world. I am currently educating myself by reading what’s happening in other countries that are trying to go back to school. I can tell you this, you can’t underestimate the virus. As far as sports, you might have a better chance of playing outdoor, non-contact sports before you play basketball indoors – especially during the winter months. Anything indoors, where people are in close quarters, seems to be a virus spreader. Plus, basketball is a high contact sport. That’s why I think the National Federation certainly got it wrong with categorizing basketball as a moderate risk sport. Fortunately for our sport, we can sit back and watch how this plays out with fall high school sports, college and professional. There is going to be plenty of information and data to make a possible plan to play. As far as changing sport seasons, I would be opposed to that. Think about it, if things go wrong after starting games and you can’t play through, then sports like baseball and track will miss out again. Talk about not being fair. I do think spring sports will get to play starting in March or April. Lastly, if we’re practicing social distancing during the day in school with a mix of remote learning, you can’t justify playing sports. You have to be all-in on both. That makes no sense and would be counterproductive.”
Frank Riggitano has won 85 football games at Middle Township, the most in school history, in the top 15 among active South Jersey coaches and 15th in CAL history. In Middle’s four appearances in the NJSIAA playoffs, he was the coach for three of them.
Riggitano: “I feel awful for all the kids, especially the spring sports athletes. They lost a whole season that they can never get back. But they are good, strong kids. I also feel for all the spring coaches. I always felt that the spring sports season was the most difficult because of the weather situations that always present themselves. But everyone will rebound because we really don’t have a choice. Zoom meetings and web page daily workouts have become the norm. We are trying to get all of our talking done now but it’s not the same as being on the field. Maybe now everyone will take time to enjoy the moment and not take anything for granted. You never know when something can be taken away. When the coaches and kids get back to the daily grind as best we can, let’s enjoy it and take advantage of what we have.”
Paul Rodio has won 954 basketball games at St. Augustine Prep, the most by any coach in the sport in South Jersey history. His teams have won 28 championships in the CAL, 15 South Jersey titles and five state championships – all the CAL’s all-time best in any sport.
Rodio: “In one sense, the 90 days we have been isolated has been the most trying time in my life. In trying to find positives, I do believe there’s a sense of everyone working together and trying to make the best in what we have. I am a diabetic and, because of my age, my family has been very protective of me doing anything. As we move toward the end of this I hope we all have grown and learned from the experience.”
After a long stretch as a football assistant at Ocean City, Kevin Smith moved up to head coach nine seasons ago. Last fall he guided OCHS into the South Jersey final for the first time in 19 years and has produced three consecutive playoff qualifiers..
Smith: “It’s been a unique experience, for sure. I’ve managed to get a lot done. I’ve been teaching remotely and keeping in touch with our players regularly through text messages and Zoom meetings. Our coaching staff has had a lot of time to evaluate last season and look at things we want to do differently moving forward. I’ve gotten to spend a lot of time with my kids, which has been great, and I tackled a pretty big home renovation project. Surprisingly, the days have gone by really quickly. It’s already time to get focused on the upcoming season. I just pray that we have one. I think everyone could use a return to normalcy at this point.”
Those are a dozen of the coaches who work with the area’s student-athletes to not only improve their performances and work toward victory but also to take the hand you are dealt and make the most of it.