Jim O’Connor retired as the head coach of the Jefferson girls basketball team at the end of this season after 26 years, and his team made sure that his final season was one to remember.
The Falcons (23-8) finished the season as Freedom Division champions, won their first North 1 Group III sectional title since 2004 and advanced to the first Group III final since 1992. Jefferson fell to Ocean City in the state final, but the Falcons were still proud of their accomplishments and the fact that they were able to send their coach off with a stellar final season.
Which is why O’Connor has been named the 2012-13 All Daily Record Girls Basketball Coach of the Year.
“He’s been amazing,” senior forward Kristen Swerzenski said. “We’d come to the games when I was little and I would watch the coach and hope I would play under him and I’m very fortunate to have gotten that chance because he’s such a great coach, he’s a great guy.”
When O’Connor was in seventh and eighth grade he was the manager for the basketball team, and when he got into high school he started playing. In college he went into physical education, and according to O’Connor, “coaching just kind of went along with it.”
After college O’Connor coached for four years in upstate New York near Cooperstown, and while he was in graduate school he was working with the baseball program and ran into someone who was teaching at Jefferson at the time. He said that a job was opening up and O’Connor applied and got the job.
“I was doing boys varsity soccer and they were looking for a girls coach and I said I’ve never coached girls but I do coach basketball so I put my name in, interviewed and got the job,” O’Connor said of how he became the head coach of the girls basketball team.
And he remained head coach for 26 years. O’Connor thought about retiring after last season when the Falcons won the Morris County Tournament title, but decided to give it one more year. He decided at the beginning of this season that it was finally time. O’Connor is originally from upstate New York and his wife lives there while he lives in Jefferson during the school year.
“It’s time to get back to my home area,” O’Connor said. “I’m not leaving it as a closed door, I enjoy the coaching part and sometime next year I’ll be retired from teaching and I think it’ll be good to carry on coaching, if the right opportunity came about.”
O’Connor leaves Jefferson with 490 wins and has coached a number of player who will always be grateful to have played under him.
“He’s just such a great coach, probably one of the best in the entire state and I’m just so happy that I was able to get the opportunity to play under him,” Swerzenski said. “He’s definitely pushed me, he’s pushed me on my hardest days, he’s pushed me to the point where sometimes I want to quit, but he always comes back and reminds me that, just keep going and he’s only there to make a better player.”
Jefferson finished the season with a strong run in the state tournament. As the No. 4 seed in North 1 Group III, the Falcons defeated No. 13 Montville, No. 5 Ramapo, top-seeded Northern Highlands, and No. 7 Teaneck. In Group III they defeated Cranford in the semifinals then fell to Ocean City in the state final.
“As I’ve told a lot of people the state tournament is very short season, six games, and we had a lot of luck along the way,” O’Connor said. “We beat some very good teams. What enabled us to do that was a whole team effort. Each night we had different things. We had 3-point shooting against Northern Highlands, defense against Ramapo and Teaneck was foul shooting. Whatever we needed we were able to get it from someone on our team.”
Despite the fact that Jefferson is losing O’Connor as its head girls basketball coach after more than a decade, Swerzenski said she believes that the team will be in good hands no matter who takes over the program.
“I think it’s going to be a tough transition, especially for the juniors, to have a new coach in their senior year, but I think there’s such a history to this program and we’ve left such a legacy,” Swerzenski said. “The Jefferson basketball program has really grown and I think that they’ll be able, for the most part, to keep that going even under a new coach because it’s just the Jefferson way.”