Former Rival’s Perspective On Long Time Griffins Coach
Written by Karl Blum, a 2013 Toms River North graduate and senior at Duke University, where he pitches on the Blue Devils baseball team.
Journeying away from home and down to the state of North Carolina for college has awarded me the opportunity of coming across students and athletes from unfamiliar parts of the country.
More than halfway into my fourth year at Duke University, I have spent a great deal of time engaging in friendly but heated conversations with my friends and college teammates over the prideful question - whose home state is better?
Given the athletic background, the conversation often revolves around how competitive my home state of New Jersey is in just about every sport.
"My conference sent six baseball players to the ACC my senior year!" and "If Rutgers could only keep our football and basketball players home they would compete for national titles every year!" are often my go-to defenses.
Whether my arguments reach farther than reality or not, it is undeniable that New Jersey is home to dozens of sports gems. Don Bosco and the other Bergen County football powerhouses, the nationally-acclaimed basketball factories such as St. Anthony of Jersey City and Patrick School of Elizabeth, and of course the Shore Conference baseball talent that I hold dear to my heart, featuring marquee names such as Angels organization top prospect Matt Thaiss out of Jackson Memorial. Is New Jersey the best? Maybe, maybe not, but this state provides fuel for competitive debate.
This past winter break I spent a handful of late evenings playing pickup basketball with former Shore Conference hoopers on the floor of one of my hometown rivals - Gepp Gymnasium – the home court of Donovan Catholic. Although I did not have the pleasure of playing for the veteran head coach at Donovan Catholic, Mike Kearney, I spent my grade school and middle school years at St. Joseph’s, the Catholic grammar school attached to Donovan Catholic.
Being a basketball fanatic from a young age, I had grown very familiar with the sights and sounds of the small but history-filled arena. The friendship I had gained over the years with Coach Kearney's son, Eamonn, has thankfully kept me on the invite list for holiday season pickup basketball.
Returning to Gepp Gym for these pickup games immediately sparked a parallel in my mind that I am shocked I had never thought of before. As I looked up at all of the B South title banners and the long list of 1,000-point scorers hanging in the rafters while picturing the rowdy Donovan Pit Crew cheering on their beloved team and head coach, it clicked in my head - this place is just like Duke.
Of course, the stage and praise are smaller in size, but the similarities seemed endless when I began running them through my head. The small private school atmosphere, the respected head coach, the blue uniforms, the impeccable student section, and most of all the success.
Given my ties to Donovan Catholic through my up bringing at St. Joseph's, I have always felt close to the basketball program even though I chose to attend the public high school in town (Toms River North). My memories inside of that gym go as far back as the summer basketball camps that Coach Kearney would run annually.
The Mon Don basketball camp was such a treat for a young basketball player who aspired to one day play at the high school level. It was my first encounter with Coach Kearney and the program he was running. I can remember how excited all of my peers and I were to have a chance to learn from him and his players who served as counselors.
The things that stood out to me most were the little messages that Coach Kearney had for his campers. To him basketball seemed so simple. We learned how to dribble and set proper screens like any youth basketball camp should provide, but the real lessons came from other themes. Hustling down the court, prioritizing your team over yourself, and showing up on defense were the things I remember coming out of his mouth more than anything else, and it showed in his players. Packing into Gepp Gym to see the Shore Conference powerhouse play in front of their crazed fans was one thing, but playing side by side with them at camp, learning what it meant to play high school basketball at Mon Don was an even better experience. To us, the counselors were celebrities.
There was something so inviting and so attractive about being around the coaches and players that made every youngster like myself want to be as close to the program as possible. The stands of Gepp Gym weren't just filled with the parents of players or Mon Don and St.Joe's students, but kids from all over town who had no ties to the Griffins other than an appreciation for hard-nosed, enthusiastic basketball.
One of my brightest memories as a young basketball fan came in middle school as I was creeping towards possibly being a Donovan student myself. The Griffins were led by young Shore Conference star Sean Grennan, who commuted all the way from Monmouth County to play for Coach Kearney. It was a cold winter night on the south side of Toms River and Coach Kearney's team was hosting division rival Lakewood High School and their star forward Jarrod Davis. I remember that Mon Don win like it was yesterday - Grennan putting on a show for his home crowd, the Mon Don pit torturing the Lakewood Piners, and Gepp Gym sold out to max capacity. Sitting in the hot and sweaty confines of the Cameron Crazies at Duke University is the only student section that I have ever seen that can top the rowdiness of the Donovan Pit Crew on nights like that one.
High school athletics has a magical element engulfing it that is often absent at the collegiate and professional level. The tight-knit, homegrown feel of one's high school cannot be replicated by even the greatest of sports stages. When schools and programs such as Coach Kearney's come together to amplify that aspect of sports that is exclusive to the high school level, the results are truly amazing.
One of Kearney's most successful teams featured Shore Conference basketball legend Randall Stallworth. Randall and his teammates were among the first basketball players that I had ever idolized growing up. Randall, Brian "Opie" O'Connor, James Shinn, Paul Batrony, and Kyle Milana made up the starting lineup for the 2006 Griffins. I was just 10 years old and could not wait for the next game to tip off at Gepp Gym.
Like many basketball fans in the area, my father and I followed that team all the way to Coach Kearney's first Shore Conference championship appearance against conference villain Christian Brothers Academy. CBA, known for its dominance in most Shore Conference athletics, was led by forwards Dan Werner, who would go on to win a national championship at the University of Florida, and Tim Andree, who would go on to play at Notre Dame.
At the time, the Shore Conference Tournament final was held right in Donovan's hometown and my future home court, the grand Ritacco Center, which is now known as the Pine Belt Arena. Because of the game's close vicinity to Donovan, the turnout was monumental. Under one basket the Griffins Pit Crew spread over three full sections, taking up every inch of space including the aisles for standing room only. Across the court, the Colt Crazies fan section from CBA was no slouch, making the atmosphere even more contentious. The stage was set for the one of the best high school basketball atmospheres the Shore has ever seen. Between all basketball affairs that I have either participated in or attended in that beautiful arena, I have still never seen a crowd match the energy for that one and I probably never will. Despite a game high of 20 points from Stallworth, CBA and Dan Werner outlasted the Griffins 65-56, handing the Donovan faithful heartbreak at the end of their title run.
The list in my head goes on and on. I remember watching Tom Carter in 2008 hit the half-court buzzer beater against Colts Neck in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals to send the Griffins back to the championship game. I remember the Donovan fans storming the court that night to find their hero. I remember watching Grennan grow up to become one of the best scorers the Shore has seen in the past decade. I remember squeezing into the balcony at Gepp Gym with my friends, hoping the high schoolers wouldn't notice we were too young to fit into their crowd.
Anybody who has been around Coach Kearney and his program for the past 17 years knows that when Donovan Catholic has a winning team, it’s something worth paying attention to. My recent trips back to Gepp Gym have raised my curiosity about what really makes Kearney's program tick. Luckily, I have a great friend in his son Eamonn, who was more than happy to fill me in.
Listening to him reminisce about his career at Donovan as well as his lifelong ties to the basketball program was a fun couple of hours for me. Eamonn and I met at a local pizza joint before this past winter break ended and then went our separate ways for our spring semesters at college. Now a junior at Drew University, it was apparent to me that he was genuinely excited to take me down his memory lane of basketball romantics. Many of us define our lives with one dominant goal or theme that we hold dearest to our hearts. To Eamonn, his father, and the rest of the Kearney family life has been consumed by the presence of basketball.
Eamonn began by telling me the story of how Coach Kearney became the father, coach, and leader that he is today. After a short career at Assumption College that ended early due to a knee injury, he sought to satiate his love for basketball in the next best way he could– coaching. Eamonn believes that his father made some sort of decision early on in his coaching career, which began as the JV coach at Worcester Vocational High School while still at Assumption.
Eamonn brought to my attention that there are many different paths that those with coaching aspirations can choose to go down. These avenues are paved with the priorities and values of their pedestrians, and Eamonn explained to me why he believes his father has remained coaching at the high school level rather than pursuing a career in high level NCAA or professional basketball. He sees his father as the ultimate teacher.
He made it very clear that winning is on the top of his father’s mind, but when it boils down to it there are other priorities that must be satisfied. Coaching at the high school level provides him with the opportunity of reaching young men at a pivotal stage in their lives, and that is something that he values more than the glamor of “next-level” basketball. To Kearney, being a high school basketball coach includes the job responsibility of preparing his players for life, not just putting them in position to tally victories. This approach to coaching is not uncommon, but is truly embodied by him.
This facet of Coach Kearney’s coaching approach is not to be confused with any lack of competitiveness in his basketball philosophy, and anybody who has had the pleasure of seeing his teams compete knows this.
One of the most exciting insights that Eamonn had for me was his childhood of growing up so close to guys like Randall Stallworth and Kyle Milana. He spoke of how hard they fought, citing specific hustle plays he remembers watching. He remembers them getting on each other in practice, not out of rivalry, but out of accountability and trust in one another. He remembers how many points each of his favorite players scored in big games and over their celebrated careers, but can never remember them ever talking about their individual achievements.
“It sounds cliché, but it was all about the team,’’ he said. “I can’t remember my dad or any of those guys ever talking about themselves. It was team, team, team.”
It is obvious that Donovan basketball and the presence of Coach Kearney have sculpted Eamonn both on and off the court. Being generous, he stands at 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighs 170 pounds. Despite his undersized frame, I would struggle to honestly write that he brings above average speed or quickness to the basketball court, either.
Growing up playing with Eamonn, I saw him as an average high school player one day at best. I do not bring this up to insult him but to highlight the magnitude of his athletic achievement. This past year, Eamonn’s career unfortunately ended after struggling to keep his body healthy, but not before he was able to call himself the captain of the Drew University basketball team.
What is even more penetrating is that he was far from ever leading the Drew Rangers in any statistical category, including minutes played, and still managed to be unanimously voted captain by his teammates. This is all a tribute to the man he is and his upbringing inside of Gepp Gym. Eamonn has a hint of selfishness in him just like every other human walking this earth. But what he wants people to know about him is not that he is a talented shooter, which he has most certainly become due to years of hard work, or that he has found a way to get every inch of talent out of his body. What he wants people to know is that he is a grinder who puts the team first and will always have their backs. This philosophy has been handed down by his father.
Those who follow basketball inside of the Shore Conference know that it’s no secret that the Griffins have had an absence of headlines over the past few years. Despite a competitive campaign Eamonn’s senior year in which they won 16 games, the Griffins have failed to reach the top of the Shore Conference ever since the departure of Grennan in 2011.
I asked Eamonn to tell me if Donovan is going to get back on top in the future, and he had a response I did not expect but truly appreciated. He told me you cannot predict the future and he does not know for certain that the Griffins will be raising another banner anytime soon. When I specifically asked, “How will the Griffins return to what once was?” he told me that in his eyes nothing has changed.
Winning requires some formula of team culture combined with a solid level of talent, and although players like Stallworth and Grennan come and go, his father has facilitated the culture for success as a Griffin constant.
To describe what he meant, Eamonn told me a story from his senior season. The Griffins were hosting the WOBM Christmas Classic champions from Manchester, and many would argue that the talent margin ruled in favor of the visiting Hawks. Prior to the game, the team huddled around Coach Kearney in the locker room as he wrote on the white board, “NO REST FOR THE WOBM CHAMPS.” His players knew exactly what this meant. To them, it meant that they were getting ready to show Manchester how far teamwork, relentless defense and hustle could take them, and each player proceeded to sign their name under the phrase.
At halftime, the Griffins returned to the locker room down by a dozen points but instead of receiving a lengthy speech, Coach Kearney said a few simple words and pointed to the phrase on the board.
Donovan returned to the court for the second half knowing its route to victory, and ended the matchup as double-digit victors. The simple message had resonated with Kearney’s players. As Eamonn checked out of the game with a smile on his face, he was greeted at the bench by a young sophomore teammate named David Calderon who had recently transferred from Manchester.
Calderon, who had been unsure of his decision to leave his hometown, was filled with emotion when he greeted Eamonn coming off of the court. He had finally felt what it meant to be a Griffin. Like Eamonn says, talent comes and goes, but when you find talent that buys into Kearney’s messages, the results will come.
He was truly emotional when speaking about his childhood and career alongside of his father. The Kearney family, including wife and mother Kim and youngest son Caleb, has embraced their basketball addiction. Almost in tears, Eamonn told me how all his brother and he would do growing up was play in their yard, not imagining themselves as NBA stars, but members of their father’s team.
Their relationship with basketball has handed them heartbreak, but rewarded them for their faith ten-fold. The basketball community, including names such as Andre Miller, the 17-year NBA veteran who played for Coach Kearney while he was coaching high school ball in Los Angeles prior to returning to Donovan Catholic, jumps at opportunities to thank the Kearneys for their influence. This has awarded Eamonn opportunities such as a behind-the-scenes view of the NBA and private shootarounds in Cameron Indoor Stadium with his dad. The Kearneys have given a lot to the game of basketball and thankfully, it finds ways to return the favor.
I will admit bringing up the tradition that exists inside of Gepp Gym may not resonate with outsiders as compared to the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl Anthony-Towns or Michigan football star Jabrill Peppers, but those who have been around Coach Kearney’s program long enough understand the gem that exists in Ocean County.
Playing for Coach Kearney may not guarantee you a college scholarship or perpetual state championship appearances, but making the decision to attend Donovan Catholic and having the courage to try out for the basketball team does award you a chance at being a part of something special. Since his hiring as head coach in 1999, Kearney has built a program not off the luxury of recruited New York City talent like other major New Jersey programs, but based off of the values of hard work and integrity.
It was a pleasure to listen to Eamonn’s recounts and hear the respect he has for his father, and if you have never caught a game inside of Gepp Gym, I think my recommendation has already been made.