During the six years that encapsulated his first head-coaching job on the high school level, Corey Hamman often wondered what might be possible at a non-public program – which can draw from an entire region and have routinely made up the top of the statewide rankings in N.J. in recent years.

Donovan Catholic High School fits that description, but it has had the inverse problem: How does the catholic school stand out as a baseball program in a baseball-crazy town that already has three successful public high school programs?

Hamman and Donovan Catholic hope each other holds the key to realizing their shared vision for Ocean County’s only non-public NJSIAA baseball program, which Hamman will now lead after being hired as the Griffins’ new head baseball coach on Tuesday, athletic director Joe Gomulka confirmed to Shore Sports Network.

“Hearing thru grapevine (the Donovan Catholic job) was open, I thought it was one of best opportunities in state,” Hamman said. “It’s really the only private school in Ocean County, which presents a unique opportunity.”

For the past six years, Hamman has served as the head coach at Lacey High School, which played in the same Shore Conference Class B South division as Donovan Catholic for each of the past two seasons. Under Hamman’s watch, Lacey reached new heights in 2017, winning a school-record 21 games and winning a Shore Conference division title outright for the first time in 32 years.

“We’re going to try to do what we did at Lacey, which is build a program from the ground up,” Hamman said. “The big difference, obviously, is as a private school, we can have kids from multiple towns and districts come play for us. Ever since my coaching career started, I wondered what I might be able to do at a program where we could attract kids from a lot of different towns who were more interested in the private school education – or in this case, a catholic school education.”

Lacey’s success in 2017 centered around a deep, experienced, and polished pitching staff, which reflects Hamman’s forte. After starring at Roxbury High School and Montclair State University, he was selected by the Detroit Tigers in the 2002 MLB First-Year Player Draft and spent nine seasons as a left-handed pitcher in the Tigers and Pittsburgh Pirates systems, reaching as high as Triple-A.

The 2011 season was his first out of baseball and when the head-coaching position opened up in Lacey ahead of 2013, it was the perfect fit. Hamman’s wife, Karen, is from Lacey and the job gave Corey a chance to start his coaching career now that his playing days had ended.

“I am grateful to Lacey and (former athletic director) Karen Hughes for giving me an opportunity to start my coaching career,” Hamman said. “It was a program that had some scattered success and I went in wanting to try to build something the right way. It was definitely a long process, but there was a buzz there and I think coming in with a professional background, the kids came in with some expectations as well.

The 2017 season was a breakthrough campaign for Lacey and Hamman, which finished with losing records in the other five years of his tenure there. He took over a team that won five games in 2012 and increased the team’s winning percentage incrementally after going 3-16 in year one. The Lions went 6-14 while playing in a competitive Class A South division in 2016, then went 21-6 after moving to Class B South in 2017.

Despite losing its entire pitching staff from the previous year, Lacey held its own in 2018 while going 11-12 and reaching the Shore Conference Tournament and the quarterfinals of the Ocean County Tournament.

“The kids put in so much work over the years,” Hamman said. “We had 15 seniors in 2017 and the work they put in made them reach every expectation I had for them from the time they were freshmen and sophomores. They raised the expectations for the program for years to come.”

Hamman takes over a Donovan Catholic program that stumbled to a 2-18 mark in 2018 and has had one winning season in the past five. Donovan Catholic has lost some noteworthy players to transfers in recent years to public school programs. After a standout freshman season with the Griffins, Mike Dimino transferred to Jackson Memorial and capped his high school career this past spring with an All-Shore season for the Jaguars before heading to Monmouth University.

Donovan Catholic also lost two potentially key players just before this season, with Nick DeMaio and Jonathan Poplawski transferring to Toms River North. DeMaio was a middle-of-the-order hitter for Donovan Catholic as a junior and Poplawski a No. 2 starter as a junior in 2017 and both left despite the fact that neither started for the Mariners.

The Griffins’ collective youth was a problem during its two-win season as low numbers forced a host of freshmen and sophomores into the lineup, but it could be a perk as Hamman tries to quickly get the program back on its feet with a lot of last year’s players back in the fold. The most notable returnee will be shortstop Matt Morro, who will be a senior in 2018 after an all-division season as a junior in which he hit .469.

Hamman said he is still ironing out his coaching staff but expects that once it is finalized, it will be one of the main selling points of playing at Donovan Catholic.

“We’re going to build it like a football coaching staff where we have somebody coaching the pitchers, somebody with the hitters, somebody working on defense and positioning – we want to give our players the best possible instruction day in and day out,” Hamman said. “I have had some discussions with some guys and if everything goes as planned, it should be a staff that opens some eyes.”

Although public powerhouses Pascack Hills, Hunterdon Central and Allentown have challenged the supremacy of non-public teams in N.J. over the past two seasons, the top of the state rankings is still littered with non-public juggernauts like Delbarton, Don Bosco, Seton Hall Prep, Bergen Catholic and St. Peter’s in North Jersey and St. Augustine, Gloucester Catholic, Bishop Eustace, Christian Brothers Academy and Red Bank Catholic in South Jersey.

The latter two of those are the consistent non-public contenders within the Shore Conference, with St. John Vianney and St. Rose also winning NJSIAA group championships in the last decade as well. CBA and Red Bank Catholic have both had the benefit of attracting players from Ocean County over the years, which is a pipeline any coach hoping to succeed at Donovan Catholic would like to redirect.

“In public school, it is hard to be competitive in and out,” Hamman said. “Some years, the talent is going to be there and others, you may not have the top level guys or the numbers. The luxury here is you can have kids from multiple towns and districts go to one school.”

While recent baseball seasons at Donovan Catholic suggest a long climb to the top, other Griffins programs offer reasons for optimism. The softball program hired Debbie Schwartz – a 500-game winner at Toms River East – in 2014, immediately won 19 games and has improved on that number each year on the way to a 30-1 record and Shore Conference Tournament title in 2018.

Although not yet a finished product, the football team is undergoing a transformation as well under Dan Curcione, who led Wall to a South Jersey Group IV title in 2016. After fielding an inexperienced roster in 2017, the Griffins will have plenty of buzz surrounding them heading into 2018 as they aim to become Ocean County’s premiere program in a statewide landscape that increasingly favors non-public programs.

“They have made strides to make athletics a priority here and that’s certainly a draw to any coach,” Hamman said. “The softball team brought in talent really quickly under coach Schwartz and you can see what the football coaching staff is doing is starting to come into place. Just the stuff they’re doing with their athletic complex and facilities, it shows people that they are serious about being a place where kids can come for a good education and excel in athletics as well.

Ocean County has not yet seen the private-school takeover of athletics, but Donovan Catholic is trying to change that with its football and softball programs. Its latest hire of Hamman is its powerplay on the big diamond and although Hamman foresees a more methodical process in program building, he expects the destination to be similar.

“The goal is still the same,” Hamman said. “We have got to show improvement early and then I think people will see what is going on and hopefully, players in the area will want to be a part of it. We have a chance to be a state powerhouse in the years to come. My goal is to get us there and stay here for the long haul and I’m ready for the challenge.”

 

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