By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
The towns that make up the sending district of Mainland Regional High School are small. Somers Point is the largest, with a population of just more than 10,000 people. Northfield has 8,200 and Linwood has a little more than 6,900.
But, for some reason — or, perhaps more accurately, many reasons — Mainland continues to be one of the best athletic schools in South Jersey, and the numbers prove that. This school year, through May 10, all of Mainland’s sports teams had a combined winning percentage of .694. This means the Mustangs, as a collective unit, win about three out of every four games they compete in. An astounding number for even a private school, much less a public school that draws from three small towns along the shore.
And, only four Mainland teams the entire school year posted a record below .500.
What’s even more impressive is that each season it seems as though at least one, and most times multiple, Mainland teams are in the mix for championship titles. Consider this: The Cape-Atlantic League hosts league championship tournaments in boys soccer, girls soccer, girls volleyball, girls basketball and boys basketball. Mainland was in the final in girls soccer and won the title in girls volleyball, girls basketball and boys basketball.
It starts at the top, with Athletic Director Mike Gatley, who has been at Mainland since 2011 after spending a good portion of his career at Hammonton. He was named Athletic Director of the Year by the Director of Athletics Association of New Jersey in 2020. One of his main priorities is finding qualified coaches, and making sure coaching staffs remain as stable as possible for as long as possible.
“With Mike as our boss, he’s a good blend of demanding but also supportive and encouraging. He’s not just an administrator, he’s a former player and he’s big into making sure we’re doing everything right as coaches. He tries to make sure every coaching position — from the head coach to the third or fourth assistant — every one of them is committed to making sure that every last piece of the program is run right and effectively and passionately. He wants people in positions where they are passionate about their program, not just providing good experiences and teaching fundamentals,” said boys basketball coach Dan Williams. “There are a lot of programs at Mainland that have really good staffs in place. My staff is fantastic, in baseball Billy Kern, man, what a job he does. They have a great staff and they do great things in the offseason with the camps they run. That team will be good as long as he is there, I have no doubt. And Scott (Betson) does a great job with girls basketball. Brian Booth has been off the charts with boys swimming.”
“There are a lot of staff members who attended Mainland, which I think is a huge part of it because they genuinely want to see everyone succeed and reach some of the accomplishments they reached when they were in high school,” said Camryn Dirkes, a senior and three-sport star at Mainland. “I think that helps in us having so much school pride. It’s one thing to go teach at another school and eventually learn that school’s pride, but when you have it from high school and then come back to coach there’s that extra motivation. It’s a deep-rooted thing that takes time to develop, and I don’t think many schools have that where the coaches actually wore that same uniform when they were in high school.”
To show how good Gatley is at evaluating who can be a good coach all you have to do is look at the girls volleyball program. Torie Rich, a longtime assistant with the softball team, had no volleyball experience prior to taking over the program before the 2020 season. But Gatley had faith that she knew how to coach and motivate. All Rich did was pour herself into volleyball research, and two season later she led the Mustangs to their first CAL Tournament championship in program history as the Stangs took down perennial powerhouse Absegami in the championship match last fall.
“We’re not really a crazy big school, but I feel like everybody buys in and gives 110 percent into what they do,” said senior soccer and basketball player Christian Rodgers. “We have great coaches who love the players and who truly want to be there. It’s amazing having all those coaches helping me out. Especially coach (Alex) Wideman, he’s my soccer coach but this year he also helped out with the basketball team. He always helped me out before games to help calm my nerves.”
As good as the coaching is at Mainland, it still takes great athletes to consistently win, and Mainland has them in abundance. Just think about the kinds of athletes who have walked those hallways just in the last five years. Alyssa Aldridge was one of the best cross country runners New Jersey ever produced, and went on to run at Georgetown. Katie McClintock was named the state swimmer of the year. Kevin Antczak was one of the best distance runners the school has ever seen. Chase Petty was a first-round Major League Baseball draft pick last spring by the Minnesota Twins. Destin Lasco was one of the best boys swimmers in state history and now swims at UCLA.
And who can forget Kylee Watson? Probably the best girls basketball player the Cape-Atlantic League has ever seen, she scored more than 2,000 points in her career and added more than 1,000 rebounds, went on to play two seasons at the University of Oregon and recently transferred to Notre Dame. After her freshman year of high school, she earned a berth on the U16 USA national team and competed in Brazil.
“We have some really good athletes,” Rodgers said. “In baseball, we had Chase Petty, we had Kylee Watson in basketball, Kevin Antczak in cross country, Jack Sarkos in soccer — we’ve had a bunch of really good athletes. And, also, everyone is consistent. Year in and year out we produce good athletes. It’s hard to put into words (why we’ve been so successful).”
“It’s crazy to think about that,” Dirkes said of all those great athletes. “Even now, our sophomore class is one of the most athletic classes that people are saying has ever come through this school. I think that comes from our community atmosphere, and how everyone cares about the community around them. These three towns are small, but people care a lot about their kids and youth sports. People stick around, or come back here, to keep things going, and that’s a big part of it. Our high school coaches continue to get involved in the youth programs, and that helps elevate players.”
“Right now, in particular, while I think there are a good amount of male athletes, the female athletes in our school, it’s crazy. Camryn is something all to herself. She’s not only great as an athlete, but there have been very few human beings who have gone through this school who are as amazing as her, and that rubs off on the kids in her grade and the girls in the grades below her who want to be like her. The female athletes we have are fantastic right now. And on the guys side, this sophomore class is maybe as strong as we’ve had in a while. Sometimes you just need two or three kids in one of these classes who younger kids want to emulate and they really get after it. I think that’s a huge thing,” coach Williams said. “There have been some really good athletes come through here, and that’s above everything, when you have talent. It’s a fortunate time for Mainland athletics right now. It’s been exciting around the building. I wish every school could have that this year, because every school went through what we all went through last year. Having a daughter who is in high school right now, it’s a bummer for them that these groups of kids have had to go through high school (dealing with covid). If there is a silver lining, at least for the athletes for Mainland, is what it has looked like for us this year. A lot of people are excited about (Mainland sports), even the students who don’t play to get the chance to come out as fans. The kids were excited to get to those CAL championship games (at Absegami) and we had a few busloads of people go up to the girls state title game (in Toms River). There has been and still is a very good vibe around that building.”
Just as important as having talent and support is bringing a winning mentality to the field, court or pool. That’s one thing that separates Mainland from a lot of other schools — its athletes expect to win, every time they put on that green uniform.
“I think that comes from the mentality that our coaches try to instill in us — that every opponent is no different than another, and every game is no different than another,” Dirkes explained. “One of our coaches, Billy Kern, always says that we just have to be better than our opponent for 32 minutes. You just have to treat every game like every other game, and not harp on if it’s a playoff game. One thing we always said, in soccer and basketball, was that we wanted to keep going as long as we could so that we could keep hanging out with each other after school. Just focusing on that team atmosphere and wanting to be around each other rather than ‘we have to win this championship’ makes everyone have more trust in each other and play more as a team.”
And as these athletes navigate their way through these seasons of winning and playing for championships, it leaves an impression on them. That’s something they’ll carry with them long after their days as a Mustangs athlete are over.
“I feel like we’re a family,” Rodgers said. “That’s the quote on the sign in front of the school — One community, one school, one family. Everyone supports each other. It’s a really nice community, and it’s amazing the amount of fans we get at so many events. I’m grateful for all those people who come out and watch us.”
“I couldn’t have asked for a better four years. Coming out of freshman year (and winning a state basketball championship), I couldn’t imagine how it could have gotten any better. The older players make you feel like you are a part of the team right away and I think that’s very important. Everyone is very inclusive and everyone cares about the team, and that’s big. Everyone focuses on the team rather than themselves, and winning together,” Dirkes said. “We have morning announcements and they announce all student accomplishments, everything from the marching band to varsity sports. If I hear the marching band won a tournament and I have a friend in band, I’ll go say ‘congratulations.’ People make it known all across the board about success in all kinds of clubs and events. We all support one another. We’re very prideful of our school and we want to see everyone succeed.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
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By DAVE O’SULLIVAN