There are still moments in any given season when Mark DeMenna allows himself to travel back to the mid-'90s, when he was known as superstar outfielder out of Waldwick High School and William Paterson University. DeMenna can be forgiven for the indulgences, rare as they are, because it's not often you run across baseball royalty in Bergen County.
Trouble is, the audience DeMenna tries to reach – Bergen Catholic's varsity baseball team – was barely out of the crib when the Pioneers were on their way to a Division III national championship in 1996. DeMenna was such a vital part of the school's ascent he was voted to The Record's All-Century team in 2000 and the NCAA's Division III all-time World Series squad.
It's a resume to die for, except if you're on the bullet train to 40 and you're standing in front of a group of teenagers whose sense of history starts with, oh, their last text message. DeMenna's accomplishments barely resonate with the young Crusaders. It's generation gap's cold surcharge.
DeMenna laughs when he says, "I feel a lot older than 37." Still, it's better that way, leaving the past behind. DeMenna belongs on a baseball field the way John Wayne belonged on a horse, but instead of looking backward, he's carving out a brilliant future at Bergen Catholic High School, turning one of the county's better parochial programs into a regional powerhouse.
That's no small task, since it requires parity with St. Joe's Regional, which ranks among the nation's top 10. This year in particular, BC had to find a workaround for Rob Kaminsky, St. Joe's senior lefthander who is projected as a first-round pick in the major league draft.
But if anyone can elevate Bergen Catholic's Q-rating, it would be DeMenna, a lucky find for the school's administration. Incredibly, he was available just before the start of the 2013 season, when then-coach Jim Burt Jr. unexpectedly resigned. To understand how DeMenna fell into BC's lap, however, means re-tracing his steps in 2011 – a journey, that unlike a trip back to the good old days of the '90s, opens old wounds.
It was two seasons ago that DeMenna, as a rookie coach, led Don Bosco Prep to a 25-1 record. The Ironmen's only loss was in the quarterfinal game of the state tournament, ironically to Bergen Catholic. Somehow, though, DeMenna was soon out of a job. To those who ask, he merely says, "We had a difference of opinion" with Don Bosco's elders and that he got along "great" with Brian McAleer, the school's athletic director. DeMenna has wisely avoided any deeper explanation of his dismissal, focusing his energy on a career re-launch.
By day, DeMenna works in medical sales, but his experience at Don Bosco taught him an important lesson about long-term success in Bergen's coaching fraternity: Keep your head down, bite your tongue, move forward. DeMenna spent the 2012 season as a volunteer assistant coach at Waldwick, his alma mater, waiting for a break. When Bergen Catholic called in January, DeMenna knew his self-discipline was about to pay a dividend.
Coaching, after all, is supposed to be more philosophy and less politics. DeMenna was a career .350 hitter at William Paterson, but more than just a former jock, his strength is in mentoring kids in leadership and teamwork. Jack McGovern, BC's athletic director, had heard the steady drumbeat of praise about DeMenna's work, even when he was coaching at Don Bosco. The idea of actually hiring DeMenna was endorsed by Burt himself, the son of the former Giants' and 49ers' lineman, who was leaving Bergen Catholic for personal reasons.
The timing was awful for the school, but just perfect for DeMenna.
"I couldn't believe Mark was available," McGovern says. "We were literally just weeks away from tryouts and we didn't have a coach. We started with about 20 candidates, but when we got to Mark, it was a natural, solid feel. He was more than qualified on every front."
McGovern was obviously aware of DeMenna's history at Bosco but conveyed a strong recommendation to the school's higher-ups that DeMenna be hired. Even if the situation appeared "highly unusual" to outsiders, McGovern says, no one was opposed to bringing DeMenna to the Oradell campus.
There, DeMenna has impressed the BC community for the most fundamental reason: he's good with people. Still, it's one thing for a high school coach to bond with other adults, quite another to have street cred with the student athletes themselves.
That link is stretched thinner every time we read about another egomaniac bullying his players. That's where DeMenna's history comes in handy, because he's been on both sides of that algorithm – a former player who knows that success is built on careful chemistry, especially with teenagers.
DeMenna knows he's a long way from his days of managing the Hackensack Troasts in the mid-2000s. It was a fun ride, leading the local semi-pro franchise to a No. 4 national ranking in 2009. But those were mostly DeMenna's friends on the roster, many of them former teammates from William Paterson.
Today, DeMenna's job description comes through a different prism, as a teacher.
"Kids at this level are very impressionable, they're still very green," he says. "That's why it's so gratifying when things come together. They make a mistake one inning and correct it the next."
The future? DeMenna learned the hard way about the futility of putting down roots. Still, he'd like nothing more than a good, long run at Bergen Catholic, which is still primarily a football hub. But baseball isn't far behind.
"I'd like to contribute to something substantial here," DeMenna says. "It's going to take some time, but with positive exposure we'll attract more and more student athletes."
Until then, DeMenna keeps building bridges, even if working in medical sales means he's rarely on campus before mid-afternoon. The young Crusaders know their coach is never farther away than a phone call or text. That's DeMenna's message: The players are a team, the team is a flock, the flock belongs to everyone, including teachers and parents. It's one reason why DeMenna has been hired by two of Bergen's best parochial programs in the past three years.
"Not a lot of coaches can say that," DeMenna says of his new batting average. Not too bad, even for a former baseball rock star.