June 11, 2008

Father's Day tribute to 3 special coaches

Guest Columnist

Editor's Note: June is always a big month for the senior athletes at area high schools. There is graduation and the end of their scholastic careers - plus Father's Day. During previous Junes, Tom Williams, to celebrate the holiday, has turned over his column to Stephanie Gaitley, Matt Woolley, Jeff Boyd, Allison Rinck, Tracey LeFever, Shaune McLaughlin, Erik Geisinger, the Degenhardt sisters, Joey Galante and Doug Colman, among others, to write about their fathers.

This week, in a bit of a twist, Mainland Regional senior Ron DeFelice writes about the impact three father figures - high school coaches Dave Funk, Mike Naples and Paul Minehan - had on him and his sister, Magee, an Ocean City High School graduate.

Though my parents have been the constant in my life, for the past four years my coach has filled many diverse roles - coach, mentor, role model, college recruiter, head hunter and often very much like a third parent. Rowing year round I am with him more than I am with my family. I am grateful my coach has the same moral character, convictions and family values my parents have tried to instill at home. He trained me to be an athlete, then an oarsman; to respect myself, then others; he presented opportunities for employment; he cultivated a desire to accept challenge; he stood beside me when I made mistakes, shook my hand when I accomplished a goal and was there for me when I needed him the most.

There are many issues facing high school students. For me, the first one was freshman orientation. Nervously waiting whatever happens next, I felt this presence next to me. He has been there ever since. Having a coach, like Dave Funk, as my Mom says, "is a Godsend". My mother could not believe two of her children would find such fortune in the men they called coach.

It takes a coach with strong moral fibers to decidedly act on his own convictions. Anyone involved in varsity sports knows the advantage of being in the first string or in our case the varsity-eight. You also know decisions are made in many places other than the boathouse or the field. As a freshman, stroking the freshman eight, I knew I had found my niche. By season's end, I asked Funk what I needed to do to make the V8. He developed a program for me and said, "It's up to you now, Ron". Sophomore year, I earned a seat in the V8.

When I earned my seat in the V8 and was concerned the backlash would change the outcome, my sister Magee related a story to me about her experience with her track coach, Mike Naples, at Ocean City. "Ron, when I started running, Napes' team had so much depth the last thing he needed was me. The 90's were astonishing for Napes and the Ocean City girls track team. In 1996, three of us (all freshmen) were determined to place in the top seven. We spent our summer attending camps, cross training and running whenever we could. After our practices began, we dissected the other runners' athletic abilities and looked for an Achilles heel. Privately, we called ourselves, 'The Freshman Force'. Crew is like cross country. Like it or not, you have to defeat your teammates to earn your spot. The one thing you need to remember is next year there will be sophomores looking to toss you into the bay."

Magee and The Freshmen Force placed in the top seven, displacing upper classman. Magee explained the swift ascent by freshmen into the successful world of OCHS running was difficult for some. However, the girls relied on each other and Napes, who always had his clipboard with the latest times, just as Funk allowed the upper classman to challenge me for my seat. She reminded me everyone makes choices and each choice has consequences. Even with Magee's advice some days it was not easy.

As a tribute to Funk and his coaching ability, both the 2nd 8 and V8 were highly competitive during the regatta season - the V8 ending its season at the United States Youth Nationals. More importantly, 20 young men forged friendships we will keep a lifetime.

Looking back, Magee's first OCHS cross country season had a similar outcome. In the fall, the team and Napes could be seen running on the boards. If you listened closely, you might hear Napes asking the meaning of his "vocabulary word of the day" or discussing the usage of prepositions and adjectives. Listening, running and talking, they did not recognize that his skills as a coach, coupled with his sense of fairness, were silently transforming rivals into teammates, pettiness into team pride and sarcasm into exertion. He, like Funk recognized the positive outcome of inter-squad rivalry and yielded to the girls' competition. In return, the girls provided him with another successful cross country season.

Funk is all about helping others. Probably the most fun we had was helping set up the Easter Egg Hunt on the beach in Ocean City. After placing thousands of eggs, which seemed to take hours, we were practically run over by a swarm of three-year olds rushing towards their goal. Our Row for Humanity raises thousands of dollars each year. Funk clears our calendar for any community event which will help us become more productive citizens in our community.

Because of Funk's innovative training techniques, coupled with his ability to motivate and coach young men in their most combustible stage, seven seniors will begin their collegiate rowing career. We will be joining teams at the University of Washington, Northeastern, Drexel, Temple, La Salle, Boston University and others.

Mr. Naples was not much different than Funk. Magee started with a list of fifteen schools. Mr. Naples steadfastly contacted the coaches (remember this is before email), the appropriate academic department and methodically described my sister's attributes. At the same time he was contacting coaches for many other athletes.

I tease my sister because it took two coaches to mold her into an athlete. Mr. Minehan was the strength behind my sister, forcing her to move when she couldn't. When she fell, he chided her to stand and finish the race. When she was exhausted, he pushed her the final hundred meters. Days she wanted to quit, Napes would become the parent; allowing the tears and frustration to spill onto his shoulders. Slowly he would console her, remind her where she came from and where she had yet to go. The next day, she'd face Minehan, ready for whatever torture he had designed the night before. Magee believes without his and Napes workouts, her existence as a runner at Duke would have ended at the first start.

Just as Mr. Minehan gave her the drive, Magee believes it was Napes who offered the fortitude. He encouraged her to excel on the field, in the classroom and as a human being. "Napes deepened my belief in the honesty of humanity," she says. "His faith and ethics continue to influence my life. As an adult, I recognize Napes success as a coach came with personal sacrifice. He chose, for example, to coach hundreds of young women instead of attending graduate classes, which represented a monetary reward."

Today, Dr. Magee DeFelice, my sister, is beginning her third and final year as a pediatric resident. The first author of several medical research articles, she wonders how many of Napes' "words of the day" she incorporated into her writing. When she has a few hours of down time, you can find her running on the boards.

Coaches have influenced both my sister and I. As I follow in her footsteps, I have an opportunity to be a better man for having had the privilege of being a member of "The Franchise". Funk has given us the tools, as he has many graduates before us and those yet to come, to "go and be great". I hope I will not disappoint him (or my Dad).

Thanks Funk, for the doors you helped open and for understanding the need to step through one closer to home. Happy Father's Day to all of our coaches and thank you for being an integral part of the person we are yet to become.

Read more of Tom Williams' columns