These are both nerve-wracking and exciting times for Mike Denver.
Denver, who two years ago was the NCAA Division III 184-pound champion, began his first season as the head wrestling coach at tradition-rich Brick Memorial on Friday when the Mustangs hosted Lacey in a Shore Conference Class A South match.
“If I said I didn’t feel any pressure, I’d be lying to you,” Denver said.
Denver, who wrestled collegiately at The College of New Jersey, scholastically for Central Regional and was the head coach at St. Rose last season, takes the reins of the Shore Conference’s flagship program.
The Mustangs have won a Shore Conference-record eight NJSIAA group championships, a Shore-record 14 NJSIAA sectional championships, a record 14 Shore Conference Tournament titles and a Shore-record 27 NJSIAA district team championships. Brick Memorial was twice the consensus No. 1 ranked team in the state in 1986 and ’94.
He inherits a team that last season — in the final season of Dan O’Cone’s highly-successful seven-season tenure as head coach — won the NJSIAA Group IV and Shore Conference Tournament titles and finished ranked No. 1 in the Asbury Park Press Top 10 for the second straight season.
“It’s probably the most excited I’ve ever been,” said Denver, who was a three-time NCAA Division III All-American and the Region VI third-place finisher at 171 in 2007, his senior year in high school. “It’s great coming into a program that’s already been established and the kids work hard and the coaching staff is fantastic. Coming into something like that, it’s kind of like grabbing gold. It’s pretty exciting and pretty exhilarating.”
Denver, whose St. Rose team went 1-18 last year with a limited number of wrestlers, is the fourth coach in the 34-year history of the Brick Memorial program. He follows in the footsteps of the legendary Tony Caravella (1980-2003), current Brick Memorial assistant coach Dean Albanese (2003-2006) and O’Cone (2006-2013).
Caravella, currently an assistant coach at St. John Vianney to former Brick Memorial assistant coach Denny D’Andrea, coached the Mustangs to 325 wins, five NJSIAA Group III championships, 10 NJSIAA sectional titles, 12 SCT championships, including 10 straight from 1985-96, 19 district team championships and those two No. 1 rankings in the state.
Albanese, who is in his 20th season on the Brick Memorial staff, might be the most loyal Mustang of them all. He was a state fourth-place finisher at 158 in 1986, his senior year in high school. Brick Memorial won two district team championships under him. Albanese was an assistant coach to both Caravella and O’Cone.
O’Cone, who will be a vice principal at Brick Township High School beginning in February, coached Brick Memorial to 147 wins, three NJSIAA Group IV championships, four NJSIAA Central Group IV titles, consecutive SCT championships the last two seasons and six district team championships.
“Expectations and goals stay the same from such a high tradition program — state championship, sectional championship, district championship and No. 1 in the state,” Denver said. “When you have expectations and goals like that, kids thrive for that and they live for that kind of pressure. If we don’t have high expectations, then there’s nothing to look forward to, nothing to push the kids. You’ve got to strive to be the best. That’s what we do here.”
There is no question there will be growing pains for Denver. Coaching Brick Memorial is a major step up from coaching at St. Rose, which will field just a junior varsity team this year.
However, he will have the services of a talented coaching staff to lean on.
Albanese is one of the Shore’s best minds when it comes to figuring out the proper matchups for the Mustangs during a tight dual meet. He knows the Brick Memorial program like the back of his hand.
Tim Brennan has been an assistant coach at Brick Memorial for several years and Don Miller is a 2008 Brick Memorial graduate and former three-time district champion.
It also will help that Brick Memorial has four returning state qualifiers from last year in seniors Joe Ghione, Nick Costa and Tyler Poling and junior Alec Donovan and a deep and talented lineup. Ghione is a three-time state qualifier and two-time state sixth-place finisher. Costa was seventh in the state last year at 182.
The schedule will be challenging.
Class A South is always one of the toughest divisions in the state.
Denver said he is trying to schedule a match with Bergen Catholic, which begins the season as the No. 1 ranked team in the New Jersey Wrestling Writers Association Top 20. Navigating the NJSIAA Group IV Tournament will be tough. Howell has a deep team. Phillipsburg and Southern are always factors.
“I’m definitely going to be nervous. I can prepare the kids as best I know, but they still have to go out there and perform,” Denver said. “It takes a little bit of the pressure off when you have the caliber of kids you do at Brick Memorial. They work their tails off, day in and day out and do whatever you say. It’s great to have kids that push, work hard and do the right things.”