By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
James Melody recently took a 107-mile trip down the Garden State Parkway to get a first-hand look at Cedar Creek High School. The prospective new head football coach for the Pirates quickly realized he was in a whole different world. Egg Harbor City is nothing like his hometown of Union, where he was a star quarterback for the Farmers before heading on to Montclair State.
But Melody, who recently was hired to replace Tim Watson — Cedar Creek’s first, and only, head football coach in the school’s 10-year history — is hoping that once football practice begins sometime this summer things won’t be so different. After all, both Union and Cedar Creek have similar programs in terms of success, as each is coming off a sectional championship this past fall. Melody, who spent some time as an assistant coach at Montclair State after his playing days and has been an assistant under Lou Grasso the past six years, said he thought the time was right to venture out on his own as a head coach, and Cedar Creek provides a great opportunity as one of the premier football programs in South Jersey.
“It was great. I graduated from Union, so I was familiar with everything we did, and I learned from a great man. Lou Grasso is a great head coach and has done an unbelievable job there. He built a foundation of winning and we’ve had some really good success there the past couple of years,” he said in a recent phone interview. “After winning the state championship this past year, I felt good about what we accomplished and I felt Lou was in a really good place to continue to coach. I just felt I was ready to branch out and be a head coach and run my own program.”
Mike McGhee, athletic director at Cedar Creek, was charged with the task of hiring a new coach during difficult circumstances after Watson announced he was stepping down to spend more time with his family. The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown of the state meant McGhee and Principal Scott Parker, as well as the rest of the administration, had to find a new football coach through Zoom meetings and phone calls.
“(Watson stepping down) was a shock to a lot of these kids, and it was hard not being able to tell them face-to-face. Tim and I, and Scott, we really tried to transition this through. Tim called every kid on the team and talked to them, man-to-man, we did Zoom meetings,” McGhee said. “And even all the interviews we’ve been doing have been through zoom meetings, I didn’t see any of the candidates face-to-face. So, it’s been interesting.”
“It’s been different. To be honest, though, over the past couple of months this has become the new normal. As a teacher, this is what you do, you’re doing everything online. But the interview process was really good and they made me feel very comfortable with everything they did. Scott Parker and Mike McGhee did a great job presenting the school to me, and I feel like I did a good job (in the interview). It seems like it’s such a great place,” Melody said. “It was different. You try to tell yourself it’s not while you’re sitting on your couch, but I felt comfortable talking to them and I think that was the biggest thing. We got to let loose a little bit and just talk football.”
Melody said he understands just how difficult it will be to replace Watson, a coach who led the Pirates to 74 wins and a pair of South Jersey championships during his nine seasons, but he’s ready to carry on the winning tradition at Cedar Creek and is eager to get to work with basically the same staff of assistants that Watson had.
“When you look at that, and when I first applied I read the articles about Tim and what kind of man he is and what he built there, and you think to yourself, ‘man, it’s going to be tough to replace him.’ But at the same time — and I say it all the time — he built such an unbelievable foundation, and it’s my job now to just continue that success. There’s such a consistency of winning there. Pressure is something you’re always going to have, but my expectations are the same as his so I was always going to put pressure on myself. I come through a program where the expectation is to win, so you better do your job the right way. And that’s what I anticipate doing. Tim has made the transition very easy and has helped me in the process, which I’m extremely grateful for, but it’s also about making the transition easy for the kids as well. I think the biggest thing for me is our beliefs and values are very similar,” Melody said. “It’s different down here, but it’s something I like. It’s a change for me, but I’m excited about that. It’s a beautiful school and that was a big selling point for me. When I got to see the building and the facilities they have, there’s a lot of land there, it just seems like a good fit for me.”
Melody also said he realizes that Cedar Creek is anything but a traditional football program. The Pirates wear flashy, multi-colored uniforms, they play on Saturday afternoons and have a tradition of playing a homemade rap song prior to the fourth quarter at home games. He said he’s not planning on restraining the players in any way, but rather will look to continue to guide the Pirates as a team with swaggar, but one that also has discipline on and off the field. He’ll also get the chance to test himself in South or Central Jersey Group 2 — whichever playoff category the Pirates fall into in 2020. Either division is very difficult to navigate in November.
“I think that’s important, especially today, to let kids be loose and be themselves. Obviously, you’re going to have to police the things they do sometimes and make sure they are doing things the right way, but at the same time these are the best years of their lives. I want to make this as enjoyable for them as it is for me. I love doing this. And it’s important for these kids to have their own identity,” he said. “That’s exciting for me. I come from North Jersey Group 5 and that’s one of the best sections in the state, so we enjoy that kind of competition. And it’s obviously Cedar Creek is the same way.”
Melody said he also likes the community involvement Cedar Creek boasts, and McGhee and Parker making him feel comfortable right off the bat went a long way toward him deciding to uproot his life in Union and move south.
“The community involvement in the program and how much they love their football here was big, and also the administration and the way they presented themselves. That was a huge selling point for me,” Melody said. “They made me feel comfortable, and that’s not easy in times like these when you can’t shake somebody’s hand and meet them face-to-face. But at the same time, I got to see what kind of men they are, and I’m excited to work with them.”
For now, Melody and the rest of the staff are in wait-and-see mode as to when the preseason will actually begin, but they are preparing the best they can given the circumstances.
“That’s out of my hands and out of the school’s hands at this point, so what we’re doing is making a schedule based on different starting dates so we’re not caught off guard when the time comes. But it’s something you just have to take it day by day. I have the guys in a Google classroom right now doing workouts, so we’re trying to make due the best we can given the situation we’re in, as I’m sure other programs are as well. We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve as much as possible,” he said. “It will be different, but it’s a change that I welcome. I’m excited to meet the kids and go to battle with them.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
Football: New head coach James Melody and Cedar Creek a perfect ‘Union’
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN