Kenny Frank of Toms River South is closing in on his 900th career victory. (Photo credit NJ.com)
The laborious but enjoyable chore of mining individual coaching records in New Jersey is behind us, so now we can take a deep dive into what lines up as a special spring for high school baseball coaches in the Garden State.
From the top-to-the-bottom of a mostly all-inclusive list of coaches’ won-loss records in our state, we discover the word “milestone” will be used often in what is already arguably the most hotly anticipated high school baseball season in the nation’s history.
After the spring of 2020 was wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic, optimism reigns supreme for a full season of spring ball in 2021, coming off of what were successfully busy summer and fall travel seasons.
Winter is a time to organize things in our lives and create lists. And this list is a doozy. Pulling it together brought many fascinating things to light, none greater than the fact that several outstanding coaches throughout our great state will hit career victory milestones 900, 800, 700, 500 (maybe two), 400 (two) and 200 this spring.
It was the 1960s TV series Dragnet that said it best every week in it’s intro. “There’s a million stories in the naked city.” I think the rest of that was, “And they’re not all pretty.” But, back on track here. There are 31 great stories about coaches with 500 or more career victories in New Jersey.
That number has ballooned a bit the past 20 years, making it hard to believe that in the late 1960s, 1968 to be exact, Joe Kasberger of St. Benedict’s Prep ended his career leading the state with 593 victories. Old Joe has since fallen to No. 15 on that list. The top three of the five ahead of him are still active and will reach big time milestones this spring.
Kenny Frank (894-302-3) of Toms River South shouldn’t have to wait long to become the first coach in NJ to 900 wins. He was the first to 800, too. A much younger man follows Frank on the all-time list at No. 3, that’s Seton Hall Prep’s Mike Sheppard, Jr. (790-208-4), who should make quick work in nailing down career win No. 800.
The great Marty Kenney (832-349) of Christian Brothers Academy retired a year ago at No. 2 on the all-time list after 46 years on the scholastic scene where his teams reached eight NJSIAA Non-Public A finals and won three state championships.
When you’ve been coaching for 938 games it’s easy to be referred to as venerable, but when Sam Tropiano (686-251-1) of Bishop Eustace nails down No. 700 this season, we will all be reminded how young he still is in coaching-legend terms as he storms northward unimpeded on this hallowed chart.
Returning to the scene of his greatest career triumphs, Gloucester Catholic’s Dennis Barth (485-94-1) is just 15 victories shy of his career 500th. And we all know 15 wins in Rams country is a given when your coach averages about 26 a year over his career. Barth spent the last few years as the Rutgers Camden coach and we are very pleased he is back on the scholastic beat.
Speaking of back, another South Jersey legend, Gary Sarno (481-293-2), who made his baseball bones at Camden Catholic, Hammonton and Cherry Hill West and was more recently an assistant at Paul VI in Haddonfield, returns to the high school front office at Paul VI just 19 wins short of No. 500. That’s no sure thing this spring, but the 68 year-old Sarno, a Wayne Valley High grad, can be expected to get the most out of his most recent charges and make a run at his next big number.
Gov. Livingston (Berkeley Heights) mentor Chris Roof (390-159-1) is a generation removed from most of the above legends but has put his foot on the coaching victory accelerator just as forcefully and heads into 2021 needing just 10 wins to join the 400 club. Roof, who won a Division 3 national championship at Montclair State as a player in 1993, already has two Group 2 state titles to his name. Roof, 47, was the NJAC Rookie of the Year in 1993 and has a lot of winning ahead as a coach. Kingsway’s Bill Alvaro has also crept up on the 400 club, too, finishing the 2019 season at 390-200. So, Bill will certainly be in the milestone-maker mix.
Millburn’s Brian Chapman can’t yet match the career numbers of his forebearers since he’s only been at the head coaching game nine years, but his pace is a bit alarming. His winning percentage is .750, already elevating Chapman to 195 wins and he’s about to surpass the 200 level, essentially the second deck of NJ’s nine-tiered coaching edifice. Chapman already owns two state championships himself, one in Group 3 and one in Group 4.
Numbers are just numbers, in a sense, but no one can take away win totals that awe. But we are impressed even more by those who can win at a truly ridiculous pace. Barth, for example, sits atop the state with a staggering .838 winning percentage over 580 games. That’s no small sample. And a shocking 31 coaches have been identified as possessing a minimum .700 winning percentage. Kasberger (.812), by the way, is the only other coach in the state to have won at an .800 pace.
Anyone who has taken the plunge into what is essentially 100 years of high school baseball records – not the first time for this writer – knows how imperfect a science it can be. Sources range from paper records, to Internet data, fellow reporters, old coaches, new coaches, former players, the NJSIAA, all subject to different degrees of skepticism. So double and triple sourcing becomes critical. There is no Baseball Reference to reference high school records. That said, we know there are some great coaches with great numbers who may have fallen through the cracks in this effort. We’ll continue to perfect this list.
Before we share the full listing of our coaches with 400 or more victories, plus the top forty 300-game winners we’ve identified thus far, let’s first make a few observations.
Joe Kasberger was the first coach to win 500 games in New Jersey and was still the state’s wins leader 23 years after his retirement in 1968. That’s when Union’s Gordon LeMatty stormed by and would finish his career with 641 wins.
Morristown’s Harry Shatel (752) dethroned LeMatty and Memorial (WNY)’s Tony Ferrainolo (754) nudged passed Shatel before Ken Frank (894) eclipsed them all in a big rush toward 900 wins.
Two all-time greats, Clary Anderson of Montclair and Stan Wnek of Irvington are not listed here because there are no career records available for either of these legends, at least to this point. Anderson led Montclair to 10 sectional championships in the 1950s and 60s. Wnek and Anderson were named to All-Decade teams on The Star-Ledger’s All-Century Team (published in 2000). Anderson was the coach of the 1940s unit. Wnek, a 1938 Irvington grad, before eventually coaching his alma mater, was named as a player to the 1930s team.
Wnek’s Irvington High School coach, John “Doc” Gantz (nicknames were apparently federal law in the 1930s and ‘40s) was a legend himself. Gantz’s teams won five Greater Newark Tournament championships (1933, ’38, ’39, ’40 and ’47) when that tournament was essentially a statewide tournament of champions. His teams also played in three other GNT finals. Gantz’s clubs also won six NJSIAA sectional crowns. That we do not have a career record for old Doc Gantz doesn’t preclude us from celebrating him.
Sheppard, Jr. is a lock to pass Kenney in two years or so, at which time he’ll take aim at Frank. But Frank continues to look like the grandfather who skis on his off days, so expect the Jersey Shore legend to keep pushing the leading wins number further away.
Union County’s leaders are the retired Ray Korn (651) of Elizabeth and the still active Bob Brewster (641) of Westfield. While Brewster is closing in on Korn and a social security check, he’ll still possessing boundless energy for the game and his teams’ success hasn’t relented a bit. Westfield has reached the Group 4 final three times since 2011. Retirement will eventually open the Union County door for Cranford’s 51 year-old Dennis McCaffery (427-134) who is winning at a frightening .761 pace. County rival Roof (390-159-1) by the way is checking in at a .710 pace and is four years younger.
Bergen County boasts eight coaches with 500 or more wins and sitting at the top is retired longtime St. Joseph of Montvale mentor Frank Salvano (630-184). Salvano, who can be see today mostly chases his grandchildren around, won at a staggering .774 pace. We should give props to Ramsey legend John Ponchak (555-342), too, who is still going strong but as an assistant coach at William Paterson University.
Longtime Somerset County rivals Norm Hewitt (631-326) of Hillsborough and Tom Gambino (522-133-1) of Immaculata remain at the top of that area. Gambino, by the way, posted a crazy .797 winning percentage. Gambino has ascended to his school’s athletic director position and Hewitt, in a fascinating twist, is assisting head coach Kevin Cust with the Immaculata varsity this spring. Hewitt’s grandson plays for Immaculata.
Jim Muldowney (275-75) of Edison was a shooting star of sorts, or a supernova if you prefer, during a coaching career that saw huge success over a relatively short time. Muldowney’s .786 pace also bore fruit in the form of the 1991 and ’93 Group 4 championships and a runner-up finish in the group in 1995. That’s three group finals appearances in five years, folks. Yikes.
1,000 wins was never considered a coaching milestone under consideration in New Jersey. The four-digit number suddenly has traction courtesy of the ageless Ken Frank and the still-just-61 Sheppard, Jr., who says he plans to continue coaching as long as he’s healthy.
You have to figure Sheppard, Jr. has a shot. He averages nearly 23 wins a season, so he could get there if he coaches to age 70 or 71. Frank is just 106 wins away from a grand but he’s 74 years old. He’ll be 75 in September. Kenny is averaging 21 wins a season so needs five real good seasons or six solid ones for sure to break into four-digit territory.
Whether or not 1,000 wins becomes a reality for either or for some future super coach, you have to admit it’s amazing we can have a conversation about such an absurd number of coaching wins.
(All records are updated as of Feb. 16, 2021).
Coaching bloodlines run deep in New Jersey and coaching trees can have many branches. There’s enough there for a book, for sure. We’ll opt instead for a short story about the affable and since retired Ted Jarmusz (465-295), who started his coaching career at West Orange and spent most of it at Monmouth Regional in Tinton Falls. Jarmusz’s Little League coach? Yea, no way you’d guess this one. The one and only “Moose.” The late great Fred Hill of course. The longtime Rutgers coach who touched so many lives. Many great coaches are spawned either directly or indirectly from greatness. Some, like Jarmusz, are fortunate to touch greatness at a very young age.
Early in his college career at Fairleigh Dickinson, current Millburn coach Brian Chapman was sent up to pinch-hit late in a game by his coach Dennis Sasso, the team’s mentor for 19 years. Chapman, who was playing for the first time in a month, tells us that the opposing pitcher was throwing above-90 cheddar and he was admittedly overmatched. After three meek swings at high cheese, Chapman returned to the dugout, slapped Sasso on the ass and said, “Don’t worry coach, I’ll do better next month.”
This story has been retold to this writer both by Chapman and Sasso and the details never change. So, again, double sourcing is critical, especially in great baseball tales.
Let’s be honest, if you grew up in North Jersey and, like most, tend to stick to your roots, South Jersey might as well be in South Carolina. The reverse is true, in a sense, but I never got the feeling the South Jersey crowd really worried much about what goes on outside its broad confines, other than in Philly sports happenings. Baseball and wrestling brought this North Jersey native, as a scholastic reporter, to pretty much every South Jersey locale to report on athletic genius. I certainly feel blessed for it. Passion for baseball runs deep in our state and the passion for baseball in South Jersey makes me feel like a like-minded local on every spring trip.
Thirteen South Jersey coaches have won 400 or more games and that list will grow quickly given the large group on its 300s list. While Sam Tropiano will ascend to the 700 club this season, men like Russ Spicer, who won 603 games at four schools, and Joe Hartmann, for which the great Diamond Classic is named, should be exalted among the greats. And there is simply no telling where the amazing Dennis Barth (485-94-1, .838) will finish among the legends on the all-time victories list. But no one can debate his affect on generations of young ball players. And his success with the Brooklawn Legion program is equally otherworldly.
We didn’t forget you, could be a refrain here. There are coaches we are sure are belong in that 400- or 300-win group, if not darn close but their records are as yet elusive. We think of Tom Bujnowski of Bayonne, who preceded Phil Baccarella (440-162) at the Hudson County school, and Piscataway’s Bob Gibernia, who pulled the strings for the Chiefs for more than 25 years. We don’t have those numbers but our efforts continue.
Youth is often served in athletics and it is in the coaching ranks as well. With that in mind we give you St. Mary (Ruth.)’s Dennis Hulse (180-75, .706) and Joe Smith (178-95-1, .652) of Delsea. Hulse already owns a Non-Public B state title and Smith reached the Group 3 final with Williamstown. Hulse’s 2019 club had to knock off mighty Gloucester Catholic to win his first championship. Smith, by the way, cut his coaching teeth as an assistant at Toms River South under Ken Frank. When Smith got to Williamstown it was if he had been shot out of a coaching cannon. He returned to his alma mater, Delsea, last year and finally pulls on his home unie once again this spring.
Two young coaches running clubs in Flemington, N.J. are Kevin Cust of Immaculata, which plays its home games at Diamond Nation, and Kevin Cuozzi of nearby Hunterdon Central. Cust is 106-81 in his seven seasons and has already nailed down a pair of Somerset County Tournament championships, while also reaching the final in his rookie season in 2013. Cuozzi, meanwhile, is off to an eye-popping pace of his own having gone 68-17 (.800) in his three seasons and reaching the Group 4 finals his first two seasons. Cuozzi’s Red Devils won the state title in 2018. Up the road in Somerset County, another young lad joining the fray is Chris Banos of Somerville. Banos (155-75, .674) started his career at Dunellen, where he reached his first of four sectional finals. His 2018 Somerville squad won the NJSIAA Group 3 championship.
Father-son combinations are certainly not rare in coaching but we do have two high profile gems here. Bruce Shatel of Delbarton has followed his dad, Morristown’s Harry Shatel (752-326, .698), into the honorable field of coaching.
Bruce (335-132-2, .717), remember, was first an assistant at Delbarton under the much-admired Brian Fleury (223-63, .780). Fleury played for the elder Shatel in high school a couple years ahead of his buddy, Bruce. Fleury died in 2007 at the age of 39 after a 20-year battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The two Harry Shatel disciples were very difficult to beat as a coaching tandem at Delbarton and Bruce Shatel has carried on that tradition laid before him by his dad and friend. Harry’s teams won Group 3 state championships in 1993 and ’96 and a Group 4 title in 2004.
Fleury delivered state Non-Public A titles to Delbarton in 1996 and ‘02. Bruce Shatel scored state championships in Non-Public A in 2017 and ’19. That’s seven group championships from Harry and one small but talented branch of his coaching lineage. Shatel’s coaching line goes much deeper. We’ll give you one more to whet your appetite. Kevin Murray, who keeps his toes in the water as an assistant to Greg Trotter at Roxbury, played for Shatel and has amassed about 400 victories (another elusive stat) in 24 years at Parsippany Hills and Morris Catholic.
Provoking attention … That’s what we hope publication of an updated Career Victories List does. The career records from Ken Frank (894) down to Dave Martin (502) of Cherry Hill East are very tight, as in thoroughly researched. The 400 wins list and below is, admittedly, a work in progress. So, your help is welcomed in firming up our numbers.
Email Bob Behre at firstname.lastname@example.org with your career victories input.