By Andrew Garda
When P.J. Scarpello accepted the position of Montclair High School Athletic Director just under two years ago, he knew it would be challenging.
The 2018-2019 school year went above and beyond any expectations as to what Scarpello might have expected though, with collapsing stairwells and construction on both Fortunato Field and the Woodman track.
It was an incredibly tough year for both MHS and its sports program, but Scarpello said that it was one the spring coaches and athletes met head on.
“The people who were most impacted were the student-athletes, and the next in line would be the coaches,” he said. “So the student-athletes don’t get to play as a senior on their home field. That’s challenging. The seniors, overall, lost half their building in their last school year. Challenging. But at the end of the day, these seniors rallied around and said ‘We’ll make the best of this year.’ And I’ll tell you the coaching staffs for the spring did the same thing. It wasn’t ‘this is my field, this is my time,’ it was ‘I’ve got a game at home today, we’ll send our JV and freshman away so you can get a practice in.’”
Coordination for practices and games was paramount during both the time when Fortunato and Woodman track were unavailable, as well as when the former was finally finished and two lacrosse programs and softball wanted to play on the new field.
“All the coaches were very empathetic to each other, so the all the teams could get their practice time in. I don’t know if you’ll find that in every athletic department, but that definitely happened here and it wasn’t because of me. These coaches have just bought into doing what’s right and what’s best for student athletes. It was a great experience which came from a challenging experience.”
Doing what’s right by and for the kids is the expectation for all coaches at MHS, there is more to the job than showing up for a practice or a game.
“Coaching is a lifestyle, it’s not just a job,” Scarpello said. “You’re fully in, because of how much time and energy you give. The coaches here do that and that’s the expectation from Montclair. We have 66 athletic teams and we compete from Aug, 12 all the way until June 10, which leaves very little time off. And that time off, they’re still in the weight room down with Coach Washington, working out, getting stronger.”
It’s a grind, and one which has likely resulted in some departures by coaches. Girls lacrosse coach Ann Jennings, with the program in various capacities for 16 years, left along with assistant Susan Murnick who was a member of numerous girls lacrosse staffs for 18. Longtime girls tennis coach Dawn Demayo resigned this spring. Last fall saw longtime hockey coach Pat Verney step aside.
Scarpello said that while you can never be fully prepared for a coach stepping aside, he does what he can to keep the lines of communication open so he has an idea of what might be happening if not this year, then one or two years down the road.
“When I have my meetings at the end of the season with the coaches, they’ll tell me, ‘hey listen I’ve got two years left, I’ve got three years left,’” he said. “As an AD my first question is, are you sure you want to do this, do you want me to hold off from putting your resignation papers? Second, what is your progression program? Do you have anybody on your staff you think would want to be a candidate for the varsity position?”
Scarpello said it can be hard for coaches to say goodbye, but he doesn’t want to pressure them either.
“For you to come and talk about this with the AD, that means you’ve thought about this long and hard,” he continued. “I can’t be selfish and ask them to stay longer, because now they’re not going to be the best then. At the end of the day my hope is they are happy with their decision and are finding happiness in another area of life.”
In the case of Jennings, Scarpello said what he was most impressed with – and feels will be very hard to replace – was all the extra things she put into her team.
“One thing Ann would do, that’s different from other coaches, is she would create her own fliers, like a Sports Information Director would in a college,” he said. “For county games, state games or even just a senior game. She had pictures in there, stats in there, I mean these are things she doesn’t get paid to do and she’s doing it at home with her own printer, her own ink cartridges and stuff like that because she cares about the athletes and the program. “
Scarpello said Jennings isn’t the only one to go the extra mile for her team and program. Wrestling coach Eugene Kline and volleyball coach Pam Reilly both spend a lot of time at youth programs to get kids excited about competing at the high school level. Basketball coach Gary Wallace has put on clinics during the summer. Football coach John Fiore works with the local youth football teams.
Those are the extras parents and fans don’t see that are not necessarily things they are paid for. They are things, Scarpello said, that they do because they care about their athletes.
When it is time for a coach to move on, as with Jennings, DeMayo or Verney, it can be sad, but sometimes it can be a good thing too according to the AD.
“Somebody new is coming in and they’re going to put a different spin on the department or that program,” he said.
Going forward, more than anything Scarpello wants to keep lines of communication open and clear. He wants more meaningful dialogue – not passing conversation in a hallway after a good game – so he can get the coaches to tell him what they need. He said he wants their input, going forward, like he got when the basketball court was designed last summer.
He wants to make sure that whatever challenges come the department’s way – new fields, scheduling, whatever – they face it like they did with the challenges this past spring.
Where, despite all that happened, Montclair athletics thrived, with a Greater Newark Tournament win by the baseball team, a tremendous season by track and field despite never setting foot on their own track, and improved play by the softball and boys lacrosse teams.