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Now & Then

by Marc Narducci

Many of South Jersey’s best coaches, who started out as top athletes themselves, share their stories.

It’s often been said that great coaches in sports weren’t necessarily standout players. You’ve heard the saying: Those who can’t, teach. However, that rule doesn’t seem to apply here in South Jersey, and it certainly can’t be used to describe the skills of Bill Alvaro, Washington Township’s baseball coach, Megan Conklin, the girls lacrosse coach at Clearview, Cherokee softball’s Nicole Lum or Lenape girls track’s Gerald Richardson (pictured)—four classic examples of the many high achievers both on the playing field and in coaching circles.

Thriving through competition
A former baseball standout at Washington Township as a pitcher—a two-year letter winner, first-team all-conference pitcher, all-Gloucester County and all-Group IV pick—Alvaro moved on in his athletic career thanks to the scholarship he received to the University of Southwestern Louisiana upon his graduation in 1985. He competed on the Division I level for four seasons while earning his degree, one that’s led to a career in math education back on his home turf in South Jersey.

As a baseball coach, Alvaro has been a huge success, first at Williamstown for five years followed by the last 12 at Township. His teams at Williamstown made the playoffs each of the five seasons he was there and won the Tri-County Conference Royal Division during his final season with the Braves.

At Washington Township, Alvaro guided the Minutemen to their first-ever state title in 2007. That was the highlight of his coaching career thus far, though there are likely to be more.

Township has also won four Olympic Conference American Division crowns under Alvaro, which is quite a feat. The American Division in many sports is annually the best in South Jersey, with some of the true heavyweights found in baseball.

But Alvaro thrives in the competition and understands that winning the American Division is a true sense of survival.

“I love the competition,” he says. “You have to be on your game against all those teams.”

And he is. Alvaro’s career record is 288-143 and, this year, he has a team that could be No. 1 in South Jersey—an experienced group returning from an impressive 24-3 squad.

One reason Alvaro has been able to be successful as a coach is that he is able to teach the most difficult task: pitching. Since he pitched in high school and college—where he threw from the mound against high-level Division I competition such as LSU, Texas and Oklahoma State—he truly knows what his hurlers are going through. That’s not to suggest that a coach has to have been a pitcher to be successful, but understanding and being able to teach the craft isn’t easy.

What makes Alvaro stand out as a coach, however, is his knowledge of what it’s like to be a high school athlete and his understanding that there’s more to school than athletics. While he refers to himself as a “baseball junkie,” he stresses to his athletes the importance of a well-balanced approach to academics and athletics.

“The ultimate goal for most kids is college and then the pros,” Alvaro admits, though adding that the best thing to come from his college scholarship was his degree. “We always tell them to pick an academic program they want,” he says.

Alvaro, who’s also a long-time assistant girls soccer coach, points out that of the 25 seniors and juniors who return this season, 14 of them are members of the National Honor Society.

Building a foundation
Unlike Alvaro, Conklin had to start from scratch when she took over at Clearview. In fact, it was her second straight startup project.

Conklin was a star field hockey and lacrosse player at Collingswood High and then earned All-American status in both sports while competing for The College of New Jersey.

After graduating from TCNJ in 2002, she realized a simple fact as her athletic career ended. “I didn’t realize how much I loved being involved in sports until my career was over,” she says.

“You almost take for granted practicing every day, but as soon as I was done, I really missed it.”

Upon graduation, Paul VI was just beginning a girls lacrosse program and hired Conklin, who by the second year of the program had won eight games.

Then in 2004, she was hired as a teacher at Clearview, which would be starting a program in the spring of 2005.

And once again, Conklin started the building effort. And while Clearview wasn’t an overnight success, the Pioneers quickly started moving up the ladder; it wasn’t long until they were a perennial Top 10 team.

Last season was another first when Clearview won the school’s first South Jersey Group 4 girls lacrosse title. And with an experienced group, the Pioneers won’t relinquish it easily.

Yet none of this would have happened had Conklin not worked so hard selling the sport to the youngsters and then coaching many that had never picked up a lacrosse stick.

This season, she should hit the first of what could be several milestones. With a 90-58 career record, Clearview will be expected to deliver the 100th win for its coach. The South Jersey title was sort of the culmination of all the hard work, but it won’t leave Conklin or her players complacent. “It was awesome,” she recalls. “We had great leadership and chemistry.”

Not to mention some pretty impressive coaching, which of course is an extension of teaching.

Maintaining a legacy
Cherokee’s Lum, similar to Alvaro, was a standout softball player at the school where she now coaches. She is a former all-South Jersey first baseman at Cherokee and then was a college pitcher at Rutgers–Camden.

Lum had the opportunity to begin her career as an assistant at Cherokee, with the fortune of working under her high school coach, the highly successful Mike “Doc” Medrick.

“It was an honor taking over for him,” says Lum, now in her 10th season as head coach. “They were big shoes to fill.”

Yet Lum has been able to keep the program at an extremely high level. While all coaches take pride in their programs, there is likely a little extra for somebody who is coaching at their alma mater.

“It’s just very exciting to take over at the school you competed for,” she says. “It’s an honor taking over, knowing the history of the program.”

And with such a deep-rooted knowledge of the history and tradition of a Cherokee program that is a perennial Top 10 contender, Lum passes that on to the players.

She says her experiences as a player have shaped her as a coach, leading to a great understanding of her players and what they’re going through, though there is one major difference between her time now and when she competed for Cherokee. When she attended Cherokee, she played two sports—field hockey and softball. Now, she gets to concentrate solely on softball and can pass that passion on.

“When they come out for our team, that is where their commitment has to be 100 percent,” she says. “We try to drive the kids to put everything they have into our team during the spring.”

Leading the next generation
Lenape’s Richardson is another good example of an athlete who excelled in multiple sports while in high school, going on to enjoy a wide variety of success as a coach as well. He was a highly successful boys track coach at Willingboro and now guides one of South Jersey’s top girls programs at Lenape.

Richardson says that he has enjoyed coaching girls and boys, but notes there is a difference.

“The best thing about girls is they will run through a wall for you,” he says. Then laughing, he added, “The boys will jump over the wall.”

Richardson excelled in football and track as a high school student in Sacramento, Calif. In track, he competed in the 400, 200 and triple jump and he was a defensive back in football. In fact, Richardson earned a football scholarship to Idaho State and was a four-year starter, winning one college national championship.

And he spent some time in the Miami Dolphins organization, although he didn’t appear in an NFL game. Still, his variety of experiences shaped his skills today.

He says the most important thing he learned is that there are different ways to get the most out of athletes.

“You can’t just say they should do it the way I did as an athlete because each athlete is different,” he says. “As a coach, you have to see what they can do and what they can handle.”

He says that in a sport such as track, a key is to know when to push and when to pull back. He says getting to know the athletes, their strengths and weaknesses, and what they can handle training-wise is very important.

And just like the other coaches, his passion for the sport—and the desire to help new generations of athletes improve—is a motivating force.

“I love working with the youngsters,” he says.

For all of these coaches, being able to guide these teams has provided the same competition, challenge and satisfaction as when they were playing.

Better yet, in these instances, the athletes at Clearview, Cherokee, Lenape and Washington Township have been the beneficiaries of the enthusiasm of their coaches—all men and women who are anxiously awaiting yet another season to begin. The good coaches don’t have much of an off-season anyway. It’s all part of the job.

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family’s High School Spring Sports Preview, January, 2013.
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