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Friday, February 13, 2015

My Mount Rushmore of Female Coaches

I've had plenty of time to think about this: The best female coaches I've covered in the last 30 years.

There are plenty of ladies who I covered who were good at their craft. And four coaches I want to single out for exceptional work as coach of their respective sports over the years, but who didn't make the Mount Rushmore Four, are Central Regional High School field hockey coach Madeline Dutton, legendary and late Toms River South and East field hockey and softball coach Gail Halbfoster, Marathon High girls basketball coach and current athletic director Teresa Konrath and Brick Memorial girls bowling coach Marie Kobilnyk, who in 2015 might be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Mustangs' first state championship in the sport somewhere.

But when I get down to it, there are four constants who stand out head and toes above the others. And in what is my 30th anniversary year of covering high school sports, I want to give them their love, respect and credit.

Becky Miller, Toms River North (field hockey, softball): Did coach Miller and I have disagreements during my 15 years I covered her teams in both sports? You bet we did. She was upset about a feature story I did, for example, on Nancy Williams, the venerable and rival Shore Regional coach in both those sports. Vowed she wouldn't talk to me until she "was good and ready" to do so. (Side note: I did a huge feature on her and her effect on girls sports in Ocean County for a special section honoring movers and shakers within our county borders at the Observer in 1992.)

That was during Toms River North's 21-0-3 NJSIAA Group IV championship field hockey season in 1987 and came days after having a most intense Shore Conference Tournament championship mach with Williams' Blue Devils on North's field that ended in a 1-1 tie.

The one thing, though, that I found out most about Becky Miller-coached teams over the years, though, was that her kids would run through a brick wall for her. She had been at North since 1969 and her field hockey teams became synonymous for greatness in the 1970s and into the 1980s. And just when you think she didn't have any new tricks to pull, there she was again coaching a team one win away from another NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV title in 1997.

That '87 team had a mission: They weren't getting stopped from winning a state championship. The stories that her star player, Kim Bush, told me about the very last intense practice the team had the day before the frigid state championship game against Morristown when game-time temperatures were 25 degrees and they were going all out as snow flurries were part of the practice still makes me smile to this day.

When North beat Morristown that Sunday night at Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey), 2-1, it was already coach Miller's 19th season with the Mariners. That championship was well worth waiting for, especially after her 1980 team came up just short of that same title.

Cut to 11 years later when she was coaching North's softball team. For the second straight year, the Mariners were eliminated in the state tournament because no matter how hard star pitcher Lauren Anderson threw, her teammates couldn't get timely hits and while she threw a one-hitter, the Mariners lost. This would have just devastated any team, but after talking to her, coach Miller was confident. She told me that "these girls are resilient. We're going to be fine."

Boy were they! They breezed through the Ocean County Tournament to beat Jackson Memorial, 4-1, after an inning that could have accounted for near disaster that saw Anderson literally walk in a run. That came a day after North won the Shore Conference Tournament as fundamentally sound Middletown South stumbled, fumbled and embarrassed itself to the tune of eight errors in an 8-1 victory. Interestingly, that marked the third time that North won both the OCT and SCT in the same years and the first pitcher who helped the Mariners pull that season double in 1983, Debbie DeBenedetto, and the last one to do it in '98, Anderson, shared something in common.

Both had birthdays on November 17. You just can't make this stuff up.

She won the Observer Coach of the Year honor in field hockey three times in my 15 years there and she won Coach of the Year honor in softball in 1993 when her Mariners, powered by a strong junior class, shocked the Shore Conference softball world by winning the SCT (as an 11th seed) and the OCT (as a fourth seed). Two years ago on the 20th anniversary of that accomplishment, I called her and found she had retired and moved to South Florida. We reminisced about that team and others she coached over the years. She can still point to names that made her the coach she became. Both she and Halbfoster were "the mother hens" I remember when I first started at the Observer in 1984. We wound up talking on the phone for over 30 minutes. It was a very, very good conversation we had.

Did every girl she ever coach like her? Oh, no. She understood that. But the ones who stayed benefited under her. She got plenty of kids to go to college to play field hockey, including one of my all-time favorite young ladies in Kim Bush at Ohio State.

It's hard not to think of Ocean County female sports and not think of Becky Miller. We had our disagreements -- but in the end, I think of nothing but the great times and all her kids accomplished under her tutelage ... and not the over 1,000 victories she attained in both softball and field hockey.

Debbie Schwartz (Toms River East softball/field hockey): Did coach Schwartz and I have disagreements over the 11 years she coached both field hockey and softball? You betcha we did! She would let me know if something remotely sounded negative to her. As much as I love coach and all she did to help me and made my job easier, I will needle her every few years about the 1999 softball season when I believe she wasn't happy about almost anything I wrote that year and yet, she was still our paper's Coach of the Year even though the most her team won that season was the Class A South title!

Now why was that opening statement familiar? Because that's how I began with coach Miller. And you can see where coach Schwartz gets her competitiveness -- from the years she spent at North playing under Miller in both sports she would go on to be a head coach in.

Her 1989 Toms River East Raiders broke a long line of bad luck for the softball program -- that year, the Raiders won both the SCT and OCT titles, the first two championships in East's 10-year run as a program. I even kidded to her once from looking at the team picture of the '89 team we took for the paper by saying her team scored the most runs, gave up the fewest runs, won the most games (26) and had the most hair out of any team in Class A South. Oh, it was a much, much different time then.

The Toms River East softball program she inherited in 1988 from previous coach Rick Dispoto was good. But she and her coaches, first Diane Morrissey and then long-time assistant Dawn Dziedzic, worked ferociously to turn that program into a Shore power through the '90s. After winning the SCT title in '89, then getting back to the final the next year only to have Wall destroy the Raiders in the championship, 18-3, East didn't make it back to the SCT title game again until 2003. The Raiders continued to win throughout the '90s, but had only the OCT title to show for it in 1994.

However, keeping my roots strong in my home county because of my Web site,, I  have kept a correspondence throughout the years with coach Schwartz. After I left the Observer in 1999, East became a juggernaut, winning four SCT titles in the 21st century and zooming past Central Regional as the all-time leader of OCT championships, winning crowns in 2001, '05, '07, '08, '11, '12 and '13.

Her 500th and 501st wins at East came in the SCT semifinals and championship in 2013. However, it was bittersweet because the Toms River Board of Education had made a new rule stating that if you were the head of your department (and she was of the high school physical education department for the three high schools, a position she held for years), you couldn't be a head coach of a sport. I look at athletic directors in my current home, Putnam County, Florida, and just sit in amazement over that bizarre rule made a few years ago, especially when Palatka High School's athletic director, Bobby Humphries, was just named the newest head football coach at PHS.

Since then, she took her talents with Dziedzic over to Monsignor Donovan and didn't miss a beat in sharing a divisional crown this season and had a memorable OCT semifinal with Pinelands Regional, the team the Griffins tied for the Class B South title, before losing. East, meanwhile, had a good season under their current coach, but nothing quite like it had experienced under Schwartz.

And it wasn't just in softball she had success. Schwartz was East's field hockey coach from 1992-97. Her best team was the '95 team that came out of nowhere and scored late on Shore Regional's field to tie the 1995 SCT final and ended up sharing the championship with Red Bank Regional, 2-2.

Anyone who has ever played for Debbie Schwartz has benefited from her expertise, whether it was Michelle Carlson, Lyndsey PeQueen, Jordan Weed or her own daughter, Corey, in softball or Jen Beresh and Kat Arnold in field hockey. They have fond memories of their times on the athletic fields to this day because of that woman, who I will forever call my friend and consider a true coaching legend. And needle about that '99 season.

Kathy Snyder (Southern Regional basketball/field hockey): The sadness that I still feel over not having Kathy Snyder around anymore is overwhelming to this day.

No Mount Rushmore is complete in my sports writing world without her. The first encounter I had with coach Snyder was in 1985 when she was Kathy Leslie and I was having to talk to her for a girls basketball roundup that I was putting together. They had gotten a win over Toms River North and I figured it'd be good to talk to her over the victory.

She barely knew who I was, but she was literally "Chatty Kathy." No one I knew up to that point could talk X's and O's and strategy in that sport quite like she did. She told me what went into the victory that night and what defenses her teams played and she could point things out that were key to the win. I always appreciate someone who was a stickler for detail.

Here was a woman who was having to build her program back up again in my first full year as a professional writer at the Observer after a 28-2 SCT championship season that came to a sad and controversial ending in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV final against Washington Township and who was also a new mom just months earlier and yet, we spent a good 15 minutes on the phone.

I was hooked. Yes, over the years, her teams were unbelievably boring. But if boring means playing stellar defense and winning games, she'd take that kind of boring anyday. She was far and above the other coaches in the Class A South when it came to strategy. Even when coach Ray Cervino's Toms River North teams should have wiped out lesser Southern teams with far less athletic talent than the Mariners in the '90s, Kathy Snyder found a way to keep her team in the game. For as much as I loved the up-and-down style of Sandy Bisogno, Kristen Herzer and Allyson Seika at  North, I came to appreciate and understand the patient, slowed-down, halfcourt tempo of Jodie Davis, Kirsten Sciallo and Candice McCallum. And I appreciated the wins, the most famous of those being McCallum's stunning 3-point field goal with four seconds left over Dana Simonelli's outstretched hand as she made contact with her, leading to a four-point play and Southern's stunning 40-39 triumph in the 1994 SJ IV quarterfinals as Snyder ran on the court to hug her 6-foot-1 freshman center.

Three times in the mid-1990s Southern played for SJ IV titles. In 1995, the Rams had the lead against Washington Township at halftime with that slowed-down, boring, keep-it-close-to-the-vest style before losing the lead and game. In 1996, Southern and North played for the title at East and again, had the lead at halftime, 15-9, before North stormed back and won and eventually played for the Group IV title that year.

In 1997, Southern and North were back again in the title game. By now, I was practically rooting for Kathy Snyder. McCallum was a senior who was going to take her talents to Georgia Tech. One ... just one ... SJ IV title would have sufficed for that program and defined McCallum's career. I can remember all the emotion poured into that game that night at Toms River South when Southern held strong and beat the Mariners and finally Snyder had her championship after 18 years in charge of the program. Unfortunately, Piscataway and all-everything star center and future University of Connecticut standout Ashja Jones stood in McCallum and Southern's way from advancing to the state Group IV championship.

Snyder took over as Southern's field hockey coach in 1987 and had numerous All-County players, but never could they rise over the top until I was out of work in 2002 and living back home. Led by her daughter Erin and other seniors, the Rams played for the SCT title in a game I got to watch. They lost to Shore Regional. I congratulated her on getting that far. She took the loss all in stride.

Then again, it didn't bother her since she was losing to her mentor. Yes, long before she was Kathy Snyder, star coach, she was Kathy Leslie, star athlete at Shore Regional High. And amazingly, the same intensity that I used to hear at field hockey matches involving Nancy Williams was easily passed on to Kathy Snyder.

I can just hear the gymnasiums throughout Ocean County reverberate from Kathy Snyder yelling, "Charity Smead, where were you on that rebound!?" or "Lorie Citarella, you didn't move to get to that ball!" or "Candice!! Get into position to get that ball next time!" Those were her centers over the years that I got to cover Southern Regional girls basketball. She rode them like jockeys riding horses in a Triple Crown race.

That short time together on that Shore Regional field hockey field in October 2002 was so busy after the match that neither Snyder or I had a chance to truly talk more about what was going on.

That would be the last time I saw Kathy Snyder.

If you ever want to know the respect that lady received, all you had to do was watch the film from her memorial service at Southern in late January 2014 days after she passed away unexpectedly at the age of 58. I found it hard to get through the tributes her former athletes gave in her honor, notably Jodie Davis' tribute. I watched Davis grow up as an athlete in the two sports Kathy Snyder coached her in and see her do the best she could to not lose it on that podium with her teammates from those Rams teams of the 1990s while paying tribute.

I had a great relationship with Kathy Snyder. I still hurt for her husband, Ken, an absolutely great guy, and for their children. It's unfair she was taken away from us too soon.

Still, I'm glad for the time she was here.

Holly Pickens (Crescent City volleyball/girls basketball): All those on the Mount Rushmore of female coaches are not just there for all the wins and titles and what legacies they left behind for their players who went on into various careers athletically and non-athletically. They're also there as teachers.

No one has had quite a challenge in making a program great than Holly Pickens at Crescent City Junior-Senior High School in Putnam County. Volleyball is not a club sport anywhere in Putnam County. If a young lady wants to further her career, she would have to go to a travel team either in the Daytona Beach area or up in Gainesville. Crescent City is literally stuck in the middle of nowhere, the closest "city' being Daytona Beach, a good 45 minutes away. Orlando is an hour and a half away, as is Jacksonville.

So in small-town, farm-rich, bumpkinville Crescent City, volleyball is a sport that is taught to young ladies at the middle school level. Pickens has been the teacher of that sport as well as the program's coach since 1983 -- my senior year in high school for perspective. In her fourth year, 1986, the Raiders won district and region titles and played in the state 2A Final Four that season.

My first year with covering the program was 2003. Coach Pickens sure had some great athletes, most notably Lauren Sepulveda, Sarah Yochum and our paper's player of the year, Nicole Cowser. They were very well-disciplined, but were missing some height and lost district titles in back-to-back years to St. Joseph's Academy in St. Augustine. They would lose in opening-round state tournament matchups at St. Johns Country Day in Orange Park.

Over the years, her teams continued to be contenders for district titles, though they couldn't get over the hump. Finally, in 2011, her Raiders had senior leadership from Sepulveda's older sister, Alexis, Vicktoria Williams and all-everything middle blocker-hitter Kayshia Brady and won that elusive district championship, the first for the program in 19 years. But it didn't end there. They would win two more matches, the last against Union County of Lake Butler, to win the Region 4-1A championship and advance to the state 1A Final Four in Kissimmee, 25 years after winning that first region title.

In that match against Mayo Lafayette, the Raiders had the fourth set in hand and were set for a winner-take-all fifth set and a spot in the state championship. But Lafayette stormed back and won that set and the match. Still, the season was a success at 22-7.

Brady, who was named the state 1A Player of the Year for all she did during that senior season, is now having a nice career at Florida Southern College in Lakeland on scholarship, and is the second greatest female athlete I've ever covered in my 30 years.

But nearly five years earlier as a seventh-grader, Brady had a starring role in another sport: Basketball. Pickens had coached the program twice in the 1980s and '90s at Crescent City and it was actually her favorite sport coming out of the University of Florida. But she also wanted to start a family and gave up basketball to help raise her two sons while remaining the Raiders' head volleyball coach.

In 2006, she took over for a third time as the basketball coach. By now, they were a downtrodden team that accumulated numerous losing records. But Holly Pickens changed all that, putting her belief into senior leaders that had known nothing but losing. And those girls were properly taught how this game of basketball works. They became the surprise team of the district. And after splitting the season series with district rival Keystone Heights, a coin flip allowed Crescent City to be the No. 1 seed in the District 6-3A tournament. After dispatching tournament host and new school Palm Coast Matanzas in the first round to automatically advance to their first state tournament in 21 years, the Raiders played third-seeded Union County in the championship.

In a game where points were coming at a premium, the Raiders took the lead late and had to hold on. With time ticking down, Union County guard Ashlii Watson took the ball to the basket to try to tie the game up. Seventh-grader Brady blocked the shot. The buzzer sounded. Crescent City held on for the 35-33 win and first district championship since the 1984-85 season when Pickens was Holly Henderson.

She would give up the basketball team one last time after the 2008-09 season, but she remains the volleyball coach to this day. Her 2013 team won the program's sixth district championship, and in 2014, the team advanced as a district runnerup to the regional final, coming within one victory of going to the state 1A Final Four again before losing for the fourth time that season to a very, very good Pierson Taylor team.

Coach Pickens sits 11 victories away from 400 in her career going into the 2015 season this fall. Now 389 wins in 32 years as a coach doesn't sound overly impressive. But again, remember the dynamics of not having a lot of feeder programs in the sport and that she literally has to teach girls first learning the sport in either the sixth- or seventh-grade.

That deserves lauding along with her Coach of the Season honors from the Palatka Daily News in volleyball (Fall 2006 and '11) and in girls basketball (Winter 2006-07). If you want to understand a down-to-Earth, even-keel, easy-going coach, no coach in that description fits her school and community quite like Holly Pickens does. She's a dream to talk to about her sports and anything Crescent City.

All four coaches -- Becky Miller, Debbie Schwartz, Kathy Snyder and Holly Pickens -- also deserve to be on that Mount Rushmore for one other reason: Their love of the sports they coach. Even in bad and trying times, none of them have ever stated they started to dislike what they were teaching to another generation at all.

Those coaches knew for the circle to continue turning in their sports, their love needed to be transported properly to generations to follow.

Like Mount Rushmore itself, these ladies have been rock-solid examples of exemplary leadership and character.

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