A little more than 24 hours before his team’s first game of the season, Point Pleasant Beach head boys basketball coach Nick Catania feels the frustration of trying to push his team through one last 80-minute practice before the Garnet Gulls – the No. 1 team in the Shore Conference and the defending NJSIAA Group I champion – embark on what they hope is another banner season in program history.

Most of Point Beach’s practices last considerably longer than this one on the eve of opening night, but Catania wanted to give his players a quick run and get home to celebrate his wife Beth’s birthday. Although his team boasts three Division I-bound senior athletes, the Garnet Gulls are dragging through their final practice and Catania expresses concern.

Catania speaks of the juxtaposition of 6-foot-7 senior University of Iowa recruit Dominique Uhl  and how his day-to-day work habits are still catching up to his physical ability. He speaks of a team that, much like Uhl, has the capability to be even better than it already is.

“We have the potential to be really good, but potential is a scary word,” Catania says.

At the exact moment Catania utters that scary word, Uhl hammers home a windmill dunk that echoes through the gymnasium, drowning out his coach’s words of praise wrapped inside a constructive critique.

If Catania’s coaching career has been anything, it is a confluence of hard work and good timing. He was hired as the head coach at Point Beach for the 2004-05 season at a time when the Garnet Gulls were just another middling Group I public school team in a Shore Conference Class B Central division full of them. While teams like Point Beach, Keyport, Asbury Park, Keansburg and Henry Hudson might enjoy a good season from time to time, sustained success is a tall order for programs with so few athletes walking the halls.

Then, a funny thing happened before the 2007-08 season: a program-changing player showed up. Jarelle Reischel, now a sophomore at the University of Rhode Island, moved to Point Pleasant from Frankfurt, Germany, and made an immediate impact in his sophomore season. With a Division I recruit attracting the attention of college coaches on a nightly basis, transfers began to flock to Point Pleasant and the expectations for the other players in the program were raised.

Point Beach coach Nick Catania on the sideline during last season. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle)
Point Beach coach Nick Catania on the sideline during last season. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle)

Fast-forward five seasons and Point Beach is among the three or four most successful public school teams in the Shore Conference over that time period thanks to an influx of talent and Catania’s commitment to providing a high-level program in which those talented players could thrive.

Just as Point Beach was the right place at the right time for Catania in the middle of the previous decade, Middletown High School North was the right place at the right time for Catania on the harrowing day of Oct. 14.

When he is not coaching his basketball team, Catania is a physical education teacher at Middletown South. As a teacher in the Middletown school district, he attended an in-service day at Middletown North on Columbus Day. Part of the day required some physical activity, and Catania was running with a group on the tennis courts at Tindall Park across the street from the school a little after 10 a.m.

“I was running behind (Middletown South football coach Steve) Antonucci,” Catania recalled. “I wasn’t trying to keep up with him, believe me. I don’t remember much, other than waking up and thinking it was Tuesday. And it was Thursday.”

Catania suffered a heart arrhythmia, a malfunction in the heart’s electrical current that in this particular case sent Catania into cardiac arrest. What followed was more of that good timing that has walked stride for stride with Catania.

Many of the teachers and workers present at the in-service day were trained in emergency situations and immediately began administering CPR to Catania. There was both an on-duty police officer and an ambulance within a mile radius of the park and both arrived on the scene within a matter of minutes.

Weeks after the incident, Catania found out that he was shocked by defibrillator four times on the tennis courts and seven times during the ambulance ride to Riverview Medical Center in nearby Red Bank in order to restore his pulse. The haste with which the rescue team operated helped save Catania from potential brain damage or paralysis that can result from a lack of oxygen reaching the brain while the heart is shut down.

Point Beach coach Nick Catania with star forward Dom Uhl. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle)
Point Beach coach Nick Catania with star forward Dom Uhl. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle)

Catania was in a coma for the better part of 48 hours and finally woke up on Thursday to learn what had happened to him.

“It turns out I had pneumonia at the time, and I didn’t know it,” Catania said. “The doctor said it was a perfect storm that it happened, and it was a perfect storm to keep me alive.”

Catania was in the hospital for a total of 16 days and returned to work a week after his release from Riverview Medical Center in Red Bank. He had a defibrillator installed in his chest that is capable of shocking his heart back in sync should another arrhythmia strike.

Not long after his return to school, practice began in advance of the 2013-14 season and the Garnet Gulls got to see their coach back in action.

“He’s the same old coach,” said senior point guard Matt Farrell, a four-year varsity player for Catania. “He’s still fiery during practice, he’s still demanding, he’s still getting on us when we mess up. The only difference now is that he’ll sometimes joke with us that if we keep messing up, we’ll trigger another arrhythmia.”

Farrell and the rest of his teammates were almost as oblivious to the details of their coach’s episode as the coach himself was. Catania was still in critical condition while Point Beach was in school and with limited phone access and limited information to begin with, rumors flew around the school.

“We had no idea what was going on,” Uhl said. “We heard from somewhere that he died. Something else said he was doing fine. We didn’t know what to believe.”

Once Catania was conscious again, the response from the school and from around the Shore Conference was overwhelming. His phone was bombarded with text messages from opposing coaches and players, as well as former players of his. Many of those whom did not text him paid him a visit in person, including the players on the current team.

“I’ve always been close with the kids here and my former players, too,” Catania said. “A lot of guys who used to play for me came to visit or sent me texts, as well as the guys on this year’s team. We’re really close. These guys are like my second family. I always feel like we have a family atmosphere and these guys are like my little brothers.”

“One thing about coach is you know he cares,” Farrell said. “He genuinely cares about every guy in his program and that’s a guy you want to play for. I remember coming to games and watching practice as an eighth-grader, and it was the same way. It’s a family.”

Although his players don’t see a difference, and he says he is not physically restricted from changing any of his old coaching techniques, Catania insists things are different. Yes, he is still active and vocal during practice, he is still demanding of his players, and he still sweats the details in preparation. When the day is over, however, Catania has learned to leave his night on the court at the gym.

“I definitely appreciate my family more, my kids,” Catania said, referring to Beth, his four-year-old son A.J. and his daughter Hailey, who is one month shy of her second birthday. “I’ve probably backed off a bit. (My family and the players) may not have noticed, but I have, just in terms of taking those bad practices or bad losses or bad scrimmages home. I used to take those home with me but I’m much more able to let it roll off my back. I used to go home and watch the game tape four or five times for every game. Now, I’m just watching it once.”

Catania’s success as a coach over the last decade has a whole lot to do with the players who have graced his program, and he’s the first to acknowledge it. His players, both current and former, as well as Catania himself, also allude to the tireless work the coach and his staff have put in to make sure the finished product is worthy of its rare ingredients.

“We get our work ethic from coach,” said senior Noah Yates, who recently committed to Yale to play football. “Nobody works harder than he does and when we see how much he puts into the team, it makes everyone want to work that much harder. I know for me and probably all the guys on the team, we want to work that much harder for him this year because of what he’s coming back from.”

Most people around the Shore have seen the way the talent has worked for Catania over the years without fully knowing how much he has worked for those talented players, as well as the less-heralded players who also make up the team. This year, more than ever, Catania seems willing to leave more of his program’s fate in his players’ hands.

If their response to his life-threatening ordeal is any indication, those players have never been more ready to pour their hearts out for their coach.

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