Meghan Wood is back home, and a new era has begun at Toms River High School East.
Following the resignation of long-time head coach Debbie Schwartz, who captured her 500th and 501st career victories late last season, the Raiders’ softball program has been turned over to one of its own.
Wood was hired by the Toms River school district late Tuesday night, taking over a program Schwartz had built into a Shore Conference powerhouse during the previous 25 seasons.
“I went to High School East, went through the program, and to come back home to where I grew up and played is exciting,” Wood said. “I respect Debbie a lot. She’s a great coach and I look up to her. I can only hope to carry on what she built here.”
For the past three years, Wood had been the head coach at Monsignor Donovan, tallying a careeer mark of 36-27. Wood played second base under Schwartz from 2002 through 2005.
After graduating from East in 2005, the 27-year-old played at Ocean County College in 2006, earning the Vikings’ MVP award for the season, before transferring to Rowan University, where Wood opted not to play softball.
She was an assistant at Monsignor Donovan before taking over the program in 2010. Last season, the Griffins finished with a 12-9 overall record and went 8-5 in the Class B South division, good for fourth behind Pinelands, Central and Jackson Liberty.
“Five years ago, obviously, I didn’t think I’d be here at East as the head coach,” Wood said. “But the opportunity came up, I applied for the position and it was given to me. To think that our athletic director, Mr. Arminio, and the Board of Education believe in me and that I can do the job well is exciting. This is a big jump for me and I believe I’m ready for it.”
Last year, a Board of Education decision that prohibited supervisors or administrators to take on or maintain coaching positions, starting with the 2013-14 school year, prompted the resignation of Schwartz, who is the district’s supervisor of physical education.
With Schwartz’s resgination, long-time assistant coach Dawn Dziedzic opted not to return as well, opening the door for Wood. Kevin Kanarkowski, Courtney Coppinger and Kelly Fitzgerald have been retained as assistant coaches in the program.
Kanarkowski will be Wood’s direct assistant on the varsity bench, while Coppinger will head the junior varsity squad and Fitzgerald will coach the freshman team.
“It will make a world of difference for Kevin, Courtney and Kelly to be with me, because the kids already recognize their faces and know them as coaches,” Wood said. “Kevin is very loyal and helpful, and knows the ins and outs on a lot of things at East. We’ll work very well together.”
Which is a positive, because softball practice is slated to get under way on March 7, and a few challenges will be present right out of the gate. The first issue at hand for the Raiders, who went 25-4 last season en route to Class A South and Shore Conference Tournament crowns, will be to figure out who’s going to fill the void in the pitcher’s circle since Jordan Weed graduated.
“Obviously, that’s going to be a challenge for us heading into the season,” Wood said. “Jordan was a great pitcher and replacing her won’t be easy. But this team has a bunch of players returning, including (senior catcher) Val Hirschfeld, so until we take the field on Day One I’m not going to worry too much about the potential challenges.
“We’re going to see who we’ve got, what they can do and go from there. We’ll take things a day at a time and a game at a time.”
As for whether her coaching style or philosophy will differ greatly from the one Schwartz brought to the dugout during the previous 25 seasons, Wood said the differences most likely will be slight and subtle.
“A lot of what I do was learned from Debbie, so I don’t foresee changing much,” she said. “But it’s not about me, anyway. It’s about the kids, and my only concern is to be the best coach I can be for their benefit and success, as softball players and young women.”