It was early September, months before Mark DeMenna would coach his first varsity baseball game at Don Bosco Prep (Ramsey)
, when he called a meeting that made his kids clamor for springtime.
When the Ironmen arrived, a Navy SEAL stood before them, offering reminders of how dedication, teamwork, and being proactive work both in a bunker and between chalk lines.
"It was eye opening," junior right-hander Tom Burns
Don Bosco Prep opens its season Friday against Clifton with its third coach in three years, with DeMenna having already re-energized and refocused one of the state's best baseball programs. A standout outfielder at William Paterson University in the late 1990s, he brings a Navy SEAL's focus and a rich baseball background that has the Ironmen already thinking about Bergen County and state championships.
"What I've seen is we have a lot of talented kids that need to be coached," DeMenna said. "We have a lot of young talent, juniors that got experience as sophomores, but there's still some basic baseball teaching that has to be taught to these kids."
That said, DeMenna, much like his preseason guest speaker, is all about challenges.
"It's definitely exciting. It doesn't get stale," he said. "If I was just sitting on the bench and we were throwing our gloves out there, what fun is there? I want to coach the game."
After guiding the Ironmen junior varsity program last spring, DeMenna inherited the varsity team last summer when former New York Yankee Mike Stanton resigned after one season in the dugout – a season after Greg Butler stepped down.
Immediately, DeMenna formulated a plan last July to return Don Bosco Prep to its previous prominence after going 24-5 last spring. He established schedules for everything: preseason scrimmages, practices, even when pitchers would throw in the bullpen – all before the calendar page turned to August.
"What I wanted to do was have a better structure of how the program was going to be prepared for April 1," DeMenna said.
From the dugout, DeMenna mixes an analytical approach with an aggressive, take-an-extra-base attitude honed while playing for Steve Konde at Waldwick High School, then two-time Division III national championship coach and American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame mentor Jeff Albies at William Paterson.
"These guys were mainstays at their respective schools," he said. "They were there for 20-plus years for a reason other than winning games. Those guys were father figures to me, absolutely."
More than just reinvigorating his roster, DeMenna wants his players to enjoy everything about Don Bosco Prep: the academics, the athletics, how the present could provide for future opportunities. As a follow-up to introducing his players to a Navy SEAL, he is taking the Ironmen to Washington, D.C., in late April – a weekend trip that will include three challenging games and a trip to the White House he arranged through a close friend who works for U.S. Senator Robert Menendez.
"It's not just baseball. It should also be educational," the coach said.
"I can't say enough about the man," said Burns, the Ironmen's No. 2 starter. "He's inspiring me and I could imagine the whole team. Just the way he's been working for us, it shows something. He's not just a coach, he's a best friend and a father."
Not to mention the coach of a squad showing it could make last season's 24-5 record and no championships a distant memory. Senior southpaw Jordan Gross
has a scholarship to Tulane and has Major League scouts following him, while Burns is a potential breakout star on the state scene. In the field, slick-fielding shortstop Jason Vosler
will attend Northeastern and junior first baseman Matt Dacey
has a strong left-handed stroke that DeMenna thinks will make him a major Division I prospect.
"County champs, state champs. Those are always the goals," Burns said. "We came together and said this is going to be the year. This is what we're going to do."
As for DeMenna, he hopes to keep his players thinking big picture for the foreseeable future at Don Bosco Prep.
"I love Don Bosco and I love everything that it offers," DeMenna said. "The campus is beautiful, the priests are into it. It's just a real good atmosphere.
"My boys are enjoying their times when they come visit me. I hope to be there a long time, at least to see my boys go through that school even if they don't play sports. It's really something special."