By TOM WILLIAMS
For the first time since 1971, Ocean City High School does not have a girls basketball coach.
Wednesday night, at an Ocean City School Board meeting in the Hughes Memorial Auditorium the Board of Education voted, 7-4, not to renew the head coaching contract of Mike Cappelletti, who guided the Raiders to 18 wins, an undefeated conference championship and a spot in the South Jersey Group 3 semi-finals in 2021-22. It was his first season after 15 years as an assistant to Paul Baruffi.
Ocean City has one of the most consistently successful girls basketball programs in South Jersey. In 51 seasons, the Raiders have had a winning record 46 times and have won 20 or more games 22 times. Pat Dougherty, Chris Lentz and Baruffi are the only trio at one school to each win more than 200 games in Cape-Atlantic League (CAL) girls basketball – possibly in South Jersey. Given the chance, Cappelletti probably would have become the fourth.
Cappelletti and an assistant, Tim Kelley, were both accused by some players and parents of abusive behavior. The other assistant coach, former OCHS multi-sport athlete Emily Gillian, was not accused. But the BOE decided not only to end Cappelletti’s role as head coach, but to table decisions on the employment of Kelley and Gillian. That leaves the program with no approved supervision.
Similar situations have popped up in Ocean City before.
About three decades ago, an Ocean City school board member told baseball coach Craig Mensinger that getting him removed as head coach was that member’s goal. After being stunned a bit, Mensinger went on to become the most successful baseball coach in OCHS history and one of the very best in CAL history. Mensinger is now in the Ocean City High School Sports Hall of Fame.
In the late 1990s, a school board member, apparently unhappy with the amount of playing time his son got in boys basketball, opposed the return of John Bruno as head coach. His public complaints included Bruno’s habit of saving his timeouts and sitting on the bench alone for a few moments at halftime before joining the team in the locker room. That board member got some support, initially, but eventually the group came to its senses and renewed the coach. Bruno, who will become a member of the OCHS Sports Hall of Fame when he retires, now has more career wins in boys basketball than any CAL coach except Paul Rodio, Tom Feraco and Ken Leary.
Then, in 2003, hiring Trish Henry as girls cross country coach was opposed by another coach and a few alumni because of her lack of experience. They preferred another coach, who also had no experience. Again, the BOE wised up and approved Henry, who just stepped down over the winter after 19 seasons with a record of 152-9 in dual meets, 11 CAL championships and six South Jersey titles. Her .944 winning percentage is the third best for any OCHS coach in any sport with at least five seasons. She will also become a member of the OCHS Sports All of Fame one day.
Ocean City isn’t the only community to face these challenges. A few years ago, a parent attacked Atlantic City icon Gene Allen at almost every board meeting until they eventually withheld his contract. Once again, that board took another look and brought Allen back.
And decades ago, in a situation with some Ocean City connections, Skip Given, a three-sport athlete at OCHS and one of the nicest people walking the planet, was let go as head basketball coach at Washington Township High School because a disgruntled father and board member drummed up enough support on the board to vote him out. The other interesting part of this story is that Given’s assistant – Jack Pfizenmayer – was offered the head coaching job but declined because of the way Given was treated. Pfizenmayer later did a terrific job as Ocean City’s athletics director for a couple years starting in 2015.
So, boards have dealt with situations regarding parents and coaches before. In some cases, they eventually got it right.
At Wednesday’s board meeting, the spokesperson for the parents seeking Cappelletti’s removal talked about the girls on the team. This is an accomplished group, totaling more than 30 varsity teams between them. And, he said, they have never had a problem with a coach before. He failed to mention, of course, that Cappelletti has coached between 30 and 40 different teams and never had a complaint before. In fact, he and Kelley are completing a successful boys tennis season this week where Kelley is the head coach.
Superintendent Dr. Tom Baruffi, who has served the school district magnificently, made the point about Cappelletti’s record after the board’s vote.
“Michael Cappelletti is a 20-year veteran teacher and coach with an impeccable record,” Baruffi said. “I honestly did not know how tonight’s vote would go, but I do believe this – with the vote not to rehire him, those who will lose the most are the players themselves. Going forward, they will miss out on the opportunity to play for a man who is a true gentleman, who works as hard or harder than any coach I know and who genuinely cares about them as people as well as players.”
Lets assume both sides are right in this situation. Lets assume that girls on the basketball team were upset by things that were said to them or the tone that was used. And lets also assume that coaches Cappelletti and Kelley said things the way they said them because they were trying to improve them, not bully them.
Paul Baruffi yelled at players. So did Pat Dougherty and Chris Lentz. John Bruno and Dixie Howell. Kevin Smith and Gary Degenhardt. Bob Hurley used to throw players out of practice. Some of us believe that coaches holler too much, but that is another story.
If these girls were bothered by what was said, that isn’t good. High school sports is supposed to be an enjoyable experience, filled with memories. That’s why newspapers and websites devote so much time to stories and live streams about high school sports.
By the way, one parent involved in this mess heckled Cappelletti’s daughter – a sophomore guard – during a game and brought her to tears. That parent needs to go sit in a corner some where and shut up. None of us gives a damn what an adult who heckles a 15 year old girl has to say. Are we to assume that this group of parents believes it is OK to yell at the coach’s teenage daughter but the coach can’t yell at theirs?
What we really have here is an individual with an impeccable 20-year record of employment who is accused of something that was not supported by an independent investigation. Maybe you put that first negative in his file. Maybe you work out a few new controls.
But you fire him?
If that had happened to any of those parents – even any of the board members – they probably would have considered taking legal action. At least one parent involved has gone to court over an employment situation in the past. And that was likely one of the reasons that teachers briefly walked out of the high school today – in part to show support for Cappelletti and, in part, because the same thing might happen to them.
The seven board members who decided to take this extreme and misguided action were Cecilia Gallelli-Keyes, Chris Halliday, Michael James, Dr. Patrick Kane, Jacqueline McAlister, Disston Vanderslice and Greg Whelan. They deserve our respect for finding the time to be on the board to serve the community and they undoubtedly made this decision because they felt it was the correct answer.
They were wrong.
To terminate an employee with a perfect 20-year record as a special-ed teacher and multiple-sport coach because of an accusation with limited evidence seems way out of line. Especially when you consider the results of the independent investigation.
We can hope that this unfortunate decision by the Board of Education does not become a precedent at Ocean City and other schools hanging over the heads of not only coaches, but teachers, as well. We can hope that there is someone out there with coaching skills similar to Dougherty, Lentz, Baruffi and Cappelletti who will step into this toxic atmosphere and coach the Ocean City girls, continuing the program’s history of excellence.
We can hope.