Each sports season, South Jersey’s elite athletes showcase their amazing skills against the competition. Records are broken and milestones are set. And yet behind every blue chip athlete, there’s a hardworking coach trying to help shape that talent and put their players in a position to succeed.
For many of these coaches, that success translates into longevity where reputations help build programs into dynasties. This fall, three such leaders in South Jersey will once again be in the spotlight as their squads enter the season under their guidance.
This season could provide multiple milestones, one of which is assured, for Shawnee football coach Tim Gushue, who long ago established himself as one of the elite in South Jersey history.
Already a member of the South Jersey Football Coaches Hall of Fame, Gushue enters his 30th season at Shawnee, a school in which he has contributed to the great tradition on a few fronts. A member of Shawnee’s first graduating class in 1972, he competed for a team that went 4-4-1 in just its second varsity season. Gushue would later become an assistant before being hired as head coach in 1983.
And not only has he stayed on for three decades, he’s won big along the way. He enters this year with a 195-93-6 career mark and most preseason predictions have Shawnee at least earning the five victories it would take to join the 200-win milestone.
Considering that, in South Jersey, a football team is only guaranteed 10 games a year, earning 200 wins takes on even greater significance. Of course, Gushue, like most successful coaches, isn’t concerned with personal milestones; he’s only worried about his team and winning the next game.
Still, when the question is posed, he admits winning 200 football games is a daunting task. “I remember when our program hit 100 (wins) and it kind of sneaks up on you, but you don’t give it much thought at the time,” Gushue says.
He’s quick to share the credit with his assistant coaches and long list of players through the years that worked together for the common goal of extending the season as long as possible.
Yet it’s Gushue who has put it all together.
Among the marks of a successful coach is the ability to sustain a winning tradition over a long period of time. Consider that Gushue and Shawnee have enjoyed winning seasons in 21 of the past 23 seasons, while competing first in the Burlington County Liberty Division and then the Olympic Conference (now known as the West Jersey Football League). Shawnee has played against some of the best competition that South Jersey provides, and still has been able to win routinely.
While Shawnee has enjoyed incredible success, the fall sports program that has no match when it comes to recent titles is the field hockey squad at Eastern.
Maintaining a legacy
Danyle Heilig has coached Eastern for 13 years and the Vikings have won a national record 13 consecutive state titles. Since the advent of the Tournament of Champions in 2006, Eastern has won four of the six titles. Heilig is now 325-10-8 in her career. That includes one season at Haddon Heights, where she guided the Garnets to the Colonial Conference title before beginning her reign at Eastern.
Yet despite the stunning success, one thing is certain—no team coached by Heilig will be complacent. The Vikings won’t be admiring their Tournament of Champions trophy, they’ll be busy making sure they are outworking everyone in practice, essentially reforming a winning attitude.
“Every season is separate and what was accomplished one season is special, but each new team is trying to achieve its own identity,” says Heilig, whose team was 27-0 last season and ranked No. 1 nationally in a few polls.
And speaking of winning programs, the girls’ soccer team at Lenape is on a certifiable roll, having captured five straight state Group 4 titles.
Coach Kevin Meder has compiled a 148-13-7 career record. The Indians have not only been No. 1 in South Jersey, but tops in the state, and earned a steady spot in national top 10 polls.
This year’s team has lost seven starters to graduation and there are many who may not even pick the Indians to win their own division, the Olympic American.
That’s because the division consists of an Eastern team that has been on Lenape’s heels for most years and won consecutive state titles in 2005 and 2006. Since that second title, Lenape has taken over, meaning teams from the same division have accounted for the last seven state championships in the NJSIAA’s largest (enrollment-wise) public school group.
Lenape as an underdog?
“I believe we will contend for the league and South Jersey title,” Meder says. “Although we lost a lot to graduation, we have talented players that are excited to step up to the challenge.”
This is part of what has made all three coaches so successful: the desire to meet a challenge, no matter how great it seems to be.
Many of our region’s top athletes have been recruited for NCAA Division I institutions. Here’s a partial listing of some early commitments.
Taylor Ng, Haddonfield tennis
Kristin Sullivan, Cherokee soccer
Nicole Varela, Moorestown soccer
Devon Cummings, Cherokee soccer
Taylor Evangelisti, Eastern field hockey
Kim Jevic, Eastern field hockey
The Ohio State University
Eli Woodard, Eastern football
Old Dominion University
Rachel Johnson, Lenape soccer
Penn State University
Carly Celkos, Eastern field hockey
Madison Tiernan, Eastern soccer;
Tori Prager, Lenape soccer;
Erin Smith, Shawnee soccer
Shane Rafter, Moorestown football;
Jarren Alwan, Camden Catholic football
The College of William and Mary
Mary Flick, Moorestown field hockey
The University at Buffalo
Zach Smeakal, Shawnee football
The University of Louisville
Gianna Perrone, Eastern field hockey;
Stephanie Byrne, Eastern field hockey;
Elina Pereira, Shawnee field hockey
The University of Maryland
Marissa Cutry, Shawnee field hockey
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family’s High School Fall Sports Preview, July, 2012.
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