By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
When Steve DiPatri got hired as girls basketball coach at the now-defunct Sacred Heart High School in Vineland at age 27, he had no visions of becoming a legendary South Jersey coach. He just loved basketball and wanted to coach a team.
Well, like country singer Kenny Chesney’s advice in one of his hit songs — don’t blink.
Since then, 24 years have gone by, DiPatri now spearheads the Wildwood Catholic girls program, and with a 63-20 win over Lower Cape May on Feb. 8, DiPatri is now a proud member of the 500-win club. That’s a number few coaches can be successful enough over the span of more than two decades to reach during their careers, and DiPatri still has a lot of coaching left in him. That win total is a testament to how consistently good his teams have been since the mid 1990s.
“I’ve been very fortunate. I took over two programs that were struggling, and we were able to build programs where kids wanted to come and play, and be a part of it. Our consistency has been something we thrive on. We thrive on doing things the right way and making other teams have to beat us. We never want to beat ourselves. That — looking back on all these years — is something I would say has been paramount to our success. The culture of work that we’ve built and having a growth mind set so that kids can learn and grow. To see the kids want to come back and be a part of your program, like Caitlin (McMullan) coming back and coaching, or Kennedy Johnson calling me from Turkey wanting our playbook because she’s playing professionally over there and they needed some things. Things like that, that’s the fun part of it and that makes all the time you spend worthwhile,” DiPatri said after that win over Lower. “You blink your eye and it just kind of happens. I was a 27-year-old, wet-behind-the-ears kid when I got my first job. I was just thinking I’m going to live my life — whether it’s in coaching, professionally or with my family — one day at a time and look to be the best version of myself every day. I never would have thought I would coach as long as I have, but then again, I never really thought about how long I would coach. I enjoy it, and continue to do so.”
There are plenty of big wins and championships to remember throughout DiPatri’s career, and each night on the ride home from Wildwood to Vineland he gets a chance to flip through a mental viewfinder and call up some of those memories. But inevitably it’s not the final scores that flash in front of his eyes, or the trophies being raised, but rather the people surrounding him.
“All the people, all the great relationships, all the great games kind of come flooding back and you remember all that stuff. Coaching is about relationships, and building those relationships with the kids, with parents, with other coaches, referees, administrators — I’ve met so many great people over the years. It’s all gone so fast, 16 years at Sacred Heart and now this is my eighth season at Wildwood Catholic. You blink your eye and 24 years go by. My daughter is 18 years old now and she was born right when I was getting win No. 100,” he said. “Katie Caruso was a 1,000-point scorer for Wildwood Catholic and she’s one of our assistants, and Caitlin McMullan played for me. These are relationships we have because of sports. Sometimes we think so much about wins and losses and we forget that we’re dealing with people, and kids. I got a text before the game from Gabby Turco, a player from last year, talking about the passion we have and the culture we have. When you’re kids are repeating those messages you taught, moments like tonight just bring you back to those things. All the hard work and effort, and all those great relationships with kids.”
This year’s Wildwood Catholic squad is the epitome of what DiPatri’s teams have looked like throughout his career. One star player in senior Marianna Papazoglou, a University of Pennsylvania recruit, along with a bunch of players who grind every day to make this team one of the best in the Cape-Atlantic League. Players such as Alyia Gray-Rivera, an undersized point guard, or Kimmy Casiello — perhaps the most underrated guard in the whole league; or senior Lauren McCallion, who just goes about her business snatching rebounds for second-chance points.
“She does all the little things we need and she’s a great compliment to Marianna,” DiPatri said of Casiello, a junior. “She’s a great shooter who has a mid-range game, which is virtually nonexistent in today’s high school game, and that makes her a threat. You need consistency of players like her — kids who will buy into their role and buy into your system. Kimmy earned a starting job in the beginning of her freshman year and she just keeps getting better.
“To be successful as a team, everybody has to have a role and everybody has to fulfill their role to the utmost in order to be successful. We talk every day about being the best version of yourself, and that’s the same with the shots we take or the defensive possessions we have. Be the best version of yourself no matter what. Our kids buy in, and that’s part of the climate and culture that we spend so much time working on and developing,” he added. “You have to have kids who are playing for the ‘we’ and not for the ‘me’ and if they are going to be the best version of themselves, they have to accept that team-first mentality. Is it human nature to want to grab the spotlight and score? Sure it is. Every kid is competitive. But, ultimately, when you can get kids to buy into the ‘we’ is bigger than ‘me’ — that’s when you’re going to achieve success. Fortunately, we have kids who have grown into that and accepted their roles. We feel strongly that when all of our kids score we can play with and beat anybody on our schedule.”
There won’t be any championships to play for this season, as the coronavirus pandemic has eliminated both the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament and the state playoffs, but DiPatri said he loves seeing how much this team has developed unfolding before his eyes. This year will mark the culmination of the careers of a couple of four-year starters and the maturation of one of DiPatri’s youngest teams ever from four years ago.
“This group of seniors all started as freshman. We had one returning starter when these kids were freshmen and that was the youngest team I’ve ever coaching. They went 15-11 and that was the worst season we’ve had,” he said. “They’ve all grown up together and gotten better each year. They went from 15-11 to 23-6 as sophomores then 25-5 as juniors. They’ve gotten so much better at the nuances of the game, like setting screens or boxing out — all those little things it takes to be successful. They are showing the younger kids how to be successful, and that’s what it’s all about, being a program and doing all the little things it takes to win.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays