Coaching turnover is nothing new, as each season teams welcome new people to guide them, often replacing long-time skippers. This year, however, the local high school girls basketball scene not only features 11 new coaches – nearly one-third of the teams in the Courier News coverage area – but two are familiar faces in new places.
Sandy Whelan and Carmen Cook have logged a combined 24 seasons coaching the varsity girls basketball teams at Watchung Hills and Voorhees, respectively, with each enjoying plenty of success. This year, both will be on the bench in the Skyland Conference, as usual, but with a different jersey displayed next to them.
Whelan, who spent the past 14 seasons coaching Watchung Hills, winning two county titles, has taken over the helm of her hometown school, Bernards, and will not only be guiding plenty of players she’s watched grow up, but also her daughter, Sara, a sophomore forward for the Mountaineers.
“I’m excited,” said Sandy Whelan, who has lived in Bernardsville for the past 15 years after growing up in Hunterdon County and playing at Hunterdon Central. “The girls at Bernards have been really open to me as a new coach. They’re working hard and the progress has been great. It’s fun to be coaching in your own town. It’s a different level of excitement.”
Whelan, who still teaches at Watchung Hills, said while she had never coached her kids at any level – her younger daughter, Jenna, is an eighth grader and son Patrick is in sixth – she felt the move to Bernards would work when Sara expressed a desire to play for her mother, and that was critical in the decision. It’s also one that wouldn’t have been made had she not had the support of her husband, Sean, and the boundaries between her and her daughter in place to ensure the right balance would exist between coach and parent.
Still, it didn’t make things any easier when it came time for her to leave the Warriors behind.
“It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do to announce to the team I’d be stepping down,” said Whelan, who takes over the Bernards helm from Joe Milde. “As a coach, you never want to disappoint any of your players, but I also felt very good about my decision from a family standpoint. It’s hard, because you form relationships with kids, regardless of whether or not they like playing for you.”
For Cook, who spent 10 years at Voorhees, amassing 204 victories and four county titles, the move to Hunterdon Central ends a two-year coaching hiatus. And his decision to return to the bench came down to one simple fact:
“It was just really about my love of the game and getting back into coaching,” said Cook, who takes the baton from Amy Cooke, who retired to spend more time with her family, athletics director Bob Rossi told the Courier News last spring.
Nine others will be coaching local teams for the first time this winter:
Christopher Billman takes over for Whelan at Watchung Hills. A three-year letterwinner at Middlesex who has served as an assistant for the Blue Jays boys and has coached middle school girls hoops, Billman was the Warriors girls freshman coach last season.
Josuf Dema, who has been an assistant for Gill St. Bernard’s the past two years, takes over for John Slackman, who stepped down after one year.
Michael Haughey, son of longtime North Hunterdon wrestling coach Dennis Haughey, is the new head man at Delaware Valley, taking over for Jeff Capone. Michael Haughey was an assistant with the Terriers boys program last season and has been an assistant on the football staff for three years.
Ryan Shellhammer, a St. Peter’s New Brunswick grad, replaces Joe Kozoh at Mount St. Mary. Shellhammer is an AAU coach and served at Rutgers Prep from 2007-2012, including that first season under Mary Klinger with the girls team.
Robyn Enderle, who played at Union and won a conference title playing at Montclair State in the 90s, replaces Chick Jairdullo, who stepped down from the North Plainfield helm after 11 seasons. Enderle, who coached the Canucks field hockey team for 12 years and spent one year as head basketball coach at Roselle Park, has taught at North Plainfield for 14 years.
John McNulty is the new head man at Plainfield, replacing Mauri Horton, who guided the Cardinals for six seasons. McNulty, a Queens, NY native, was a Division II All-American at Florida Southern (1986), before playing two years in the USBL, he said. McNulty has logged AAU and youth coaching in Union County and enters the high-school coaching game for the first time.
Keith Connery at Dunellen is also making his first foray into high school coaching, taking over the Destroyers from Dan Hummel. Connery, who played at Dunellen and is the brother of the boys program’s all-time leading scorer, Tim Connery, coached Lincoln Middle School’s girls team for six seasons and has done plenty of youth and travel coaching, as well.
Rounding out the list is former Rider University field hockey star Megan Pisani, who replaces Jessica Doyle at Montgomery, and Michael Knitowski who takes over for Dan Sferrazza at Manville.
The ever-changing divisional alignment of the Skyland Conference is scheduled for another twist next season, with the league not only going back to four divisions, but welcoming in a new member.
Rutgers Prep joins the conference next fall, creating a 24-team girls basketball league with four six-team divisions.
Here’s how things will look:
Delaware Division – Bridgewater-Raritan, Franklin, Gill St. Bernard’s, Hillsborough, Phillipsburg, Rutgers Prep.
Raritan Division – Hunterdon Central, Immaculata, Montgomery, North Hunterdon, Ridge, Watchung Hills
Valley Division – Delaware Valley, Mount St. Mary, Pingry, Somerville, Voorhees, Warren Hills.
Mountain Division – Belvidere, Bernards, Bound Brook, Manville, North Plainfield, South Hunterdon.
Hoops for Troops
Watchung Hills will be participating in the second annual Hoops for Troops event Jan. 2 at Roselle Catholic High School, featuring two girls teams and 10 boys teams playing in a two-day showcase.
The Warriors will face Roselle Catholic at 5 p.m. with a portion of the proceeds being donated to Feherty’s Troops First Foundation, which works to provide meaningful assistance to our military who have been wounded while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the organization’s website.