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2014 Coaches of the Year

by Matt Cosentino

The best coaches, especially when dealing with youth or high school athletes, have an impact that lasts much longer than one particular season. They care about every child under their watch, from the superstar player down to the last kid on the bench, and their lessons are about more than just winning.

Year in and year out, South Jersey is fortunate to have plenty of men and women who devote their time to coaching kids for the right reasons. Suburban Family is once again recognizing several of them for their contributions to our children’s athletic and personal growth.

Many of these coaches led their youth teams to championships or their schools to new heights. But more importantly, they had a positive influence on the players they coached and left an impression that won’t soon be forgotten.

Frank DeLano
DeLano’s Haddonfield Memorial High School football team capped an emotional year for the veteran coach with an amazing playoff run that will go down as one of the most memorable in South Jersey history. The Bulldawgs marched to the South Jersey Group II championship, their second sectional title in four years, with three upset victories over previously undefeated teams. Haddonfield beat rival West Deptford in the first round, 21-9, before rolling past top-seeded Camden in the semifinals, 45-19. The Bulldawgs completed the run with a 21-0 shutout over Woodstown in the final. The championship was especially meaningful considering DeLano’s mother, her son’s biggest fan and a mainstay in the Haddonfield bleachers, passed away before the season.

Dana Palumbo
Palumbo knows exactly what it takes to be a member of the highly regarded Shawnee High School girls cross country program, as she was a standout runner for the Renegades herself in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As an athlete, she was part of Shawnee’s streak of 12 straight South Jersey Group IV championships from 1990-2001, and now she has a sectional title as a coach. Palumbo guided the Renegades to their first South Jersey crown since 2006 this past fall. The Renegades went on to place fourth at states and seventh at the Meet of Champions. They also won titles this season at the South Jersey Shootout, the Shore Coaches Invitational, the South Jersey Open, the Burlington County Open and the Olympic Conference Championships.

Mike Sullivan, Scott McKay and Steve Monahan
With two minutes remaining in the semifinals of the prestigious Flyers Cup—a tournament featuring the best high school ice hockey teams from eastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey—the Cherokee club team could have easily packed it in. But that’s not the kind of culture that Sullivan and assistants McKay and Monahan have established for the program. So the Chiefs battled back from a two-goal deficit against top-seeded Central Bucks South, won the game in overtime and advanced to the AA Division final, where they defeated Parkland, 6-3. Cherokee was the first South Jersey team to ever win the AA championship and finished the season with a sterling 24-3-2 record.

Tracy Burkhart
Washington Township
Burkhart had a tough act to follow when she took over for Mickey Shaw as the Washington Township High School softball coach back in 2001. Burkhart played four varsity seasons under Shaw, the winningest coach in school history, and knew the challenge that awaited her. But she’s kept the program at an elite level, winning her second Group IV state championship last season as the Minutemaids finished with a 30-2 record. She was chosen as the New Jersey Scholastic Coaches Association’s Softball Coach of the Year and will be honored at the annual banquet in March. Burkhart enters the 2014 season with 245 career victories.

Rob Christ
Christ played college baseball, was a play-by-play announcer in the minor leagues and even spent a year in the marketing department of the Pittsburgh Pirates. But his greatest season in baseball might have been 2013 with Eastern Regional High School. Christ, who started his coaching career at Gateway in the mid-1990s and has been the head coach at Eastern since 2004, led the Vikings to the first state championship in school history as they captured the Group IV crown with an 8-1 win over Westfield. Although not highly thought of before the season, Christ’s team finished with a 29-4 season and was ranked second in the final state poll.

Ron Ippolite
Washington Township
Ippolite knows a thing or two about peaking at the right time as a wrestler. During his heavyweight days at Highland High School in the 1980s, he won district and region crowns and finished second in the state as a senior. His experience paid off for his team last spring, as the Minutemen tied for the lead with four individual titles at the District 30 Championships and finished third in the team standings. Ippolite, who led the Minutemen to an 18-8 record for the season, was rewarded with District 30 Coach of the Year honors.

Bonnie Melnick
Melnick, the owner and gym director at Diamond Athletics, oversees 11 cheer teams and is an inspiration to her young athletes. With her compassionate and encouraging approach, she works to build up her athletes’ self-esteem while teaching them the dedication needed to compete at an all-star level. While there is not an emphasis put on winning, Melnick’s teams often post favorable results at their local and regional competitions throughout the year. Melnick, who is seeking a master’s degree in sports psychology, also started the Precious Gems cheer team at Diamond Athletics three years ago. The program, for specials needs children ages 5 and above and free of charge, helps kids learn motor and language skills while developing a dance routine.

Bill Rieger
With the help of his dedicated coaching staff and an outstanding performance by his players all year long, Rieger led the Medford Indians 120-pound football team to the South Jersey Elite Football League championship and an undefeated season. After posting a perfect 9-0 record in the regular season, Rieger’s squad marched through the playoffs and met the Gloucester Township Stallions in the final in a battle of unbeaten teams. The Indians prevailed, 11-0, in a tight defensive battle, scoring on a kickoff return, a safety and a field goal. Rieger, who has been coaching in the program for 11 years, was assisted by John Johnson, Sean Malady, Bob Simons, Marty Dunleavy, Don Papa, Jim Peterson and Andy Ellis.

Jamie McGroarty
A tremendous soccer player during his days at Cherry Hill High School West and Rowan University, McGroarty has carried the success over to his coaching career. After starting out with the Delsea girls program, he has spent the last 11 seasons leading the Eastern girls team, and the Vikings gave him a milestone win in September. Their 6-0 victory over Cherry Hill East was the 317th of McGroarty’s career, surpassing the South Jersey record of former Cherry Hill East and Haddon Heights coach Lee Troutman. McGroarty, who has won three state titles as a coach, finished the season with 333 career victories as Eastern reached the South Jersey Group IV final. He also reached a milestone last spring, passing 100 career wins as the Eastern softball coach. He stepped down from that position after last season.

Kevin Merrill
Through the first 19 games of the 2013 season, Merrill’s Cinnaminson High School baseball team had a solid but not spectacular record of 11-8. From that point on, the Pirates went on a tear, making it the most memorable season in school history. They went 11-1 over the final 12 games, a stretch that included their first sectional title since 1975 and the school’s first state championship in baseball. They saved the best for last with a 2-1 decision over Mahwah in the Group II final, as Cole Pewor drove in the winning run in the top of the seventh inning. Winning pitcher John Bednarek worked out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the sixth inning and struck out the final batter in the seventh to seal the win. Merrill played for Cinnaminson and last season was his seventh as the head coach at his alma mater.

Troy Memis
Mullica Hill
Being a successful coach isn’t just about wins and championships, and Memis is the perfect example. Inspired by his youngest son, JT, who has Down syndrome, Memis was instrumental in bringing TOPSoccer (The Outreach Program for Soccer) to Harrison Township last year. A longtime youth coach, he wanted kids with special needs to have the opportunity to play in a safe environment, and the response was overwhelming, as more than 50 children from across South Jersey signed up for the first season, far above expectations. Memis also created a nonprofit organization called TOP Sports, which gives special needs kids the chance to expand into other sports like baseball, bowling and basketball.

Ted Flocco
They say defense wins championships, and that was certainly the case for Flocco’s sixth- and seventh-grade boys basketball team last year. The Hoosiers rode their intense “D” to a thrilling 32-30 win in the Marlton Rec Council’s championship game last March at Cherokee High School. In addition to defense, Flocco also preached the importance of strong low-post scoring and aggressive play from the squad, which included his son Ryan.

Stacey Tosadori
Tosadori’s Voorhees Middle School girls soccer program has a reputation for excellence, and the 2013 season was no different. She led the team to an undefeated 10-0 record during the regular season, the first time in at least 15 years they put together a perfect mark. Voorhees went on to reach the league championship game and finished as the runner-up. In the last four years, the program has two league championships and two second-place finishes.

Vince Principato
Even the best basketball teams have nights where their shots just aren’t falling. But Principato’s Marlton Middle School boys basketball squad didn’t seem to have any off-days last season. Principato, a physical education teacher at the school, led the boys to an undefeated season. Their final victory was a 43-18 win over Northern Burlington County for the championship, the first time Marlton had advanced to the final in 20 years.

Matt Cieslik
Cherry Hill
The 2013 season was one to remember for Cieslik and the Cherry Hill High School East boys cross country team, which brought home its first sectional championship since 1985. The Cougars placed three runners in the top 10 and held off Kingsway for the South Jersey Group IV title. Cieslik also guided East to the team crown at the Olympic Conference Championships earlier in the season, and the Cougars went on to place third in the state in Group IV. They capped the season with a ninth-place showing at the Meet of Champions, second only to Haddonfield among South Jersey schools.

Jim Villa
Undefeated summers are becoming old hat for Villa and the Wedgewood Swim Club. The Ducks, a team of homegrown Haddonfield boys and girls swimmers, notched a perfect record and won the Tri-County Swimming Pool Association “A” Division crown for the third straight year. They also set eight club records during the season and two meet records as they claimed first place at the 57th Annual Burt German Tri-County Swimming Championships.

Frank Smith
Mount Laurel
The 2012-13 season was a special one for Smith and his eight Mount Laurel fifth-grade girls basketball travel team players, who proved what can happen when you play together as a team. Smith used that philosophy to guide the Rebels to an impressive 18-1 record in their league and a 27-2 overall mark. The highlight of the season was a victory over Voorhees for the Inter-County Basketball League championship, and they also won titles at the 8th Annual Voorhees Tip-Off Classic and the 15th Annual Warrington-Warrick Warm-up Tournament.

Bob Long
If Long’s Penguins “A” Division team entered a tournament in 2013, chances were they reached the championship game. In a remarkable show of consistency, the Penguins–a 7-9-year-old team in the Marlton Chiefs Street Hockey program–entered seven tournaments and made the final in six of them. They won two of those tournaments, including the highlight of their season, a title at the National Street Hockey Association Championships. They earned a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Gloucester Township in the final and finished the year with a 34-8 record.

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 12 (February, 2014).
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