After enjoying a highly successful playing career, eventually earning her place in the Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame, then, as a coach, leading her high school alma mater St. Anthony to the 2007 NJSIAA Non-Public B North state sectional championship, Cathy Meyers O’Callahan walked away from the game of basketball for a few years.
O’Callahan soon found out that she was destined to remain in the game.
Four years ago, O’Callahan missed coaching basketball so much that she decided to take the head girls’ basketball position at Dickinson High School.
O’Callahan had no idea what she was about to encounter.
“Considering I came from St. Anthony, which was a winning program, it was very tough to adjust,” O’Callahan said about taking the Dickinson job. “I was used to having just a little bit of talent, knowing the basic skills of the game. I found out that these kids had no basic skills whatsoever.”
So instead of fine tuning talent and getting them ready to challenge on the big stage of a state championship game like she did at St. Anthony, O’Callahan had to go back to her basketball beginnings.
“It was all fundamentals,” O’Callahan said. “It was all basics. I was used to kids walking on the court and knowing what to do, knowing the game and knowing the rules. That didn’t happen here. Seriously, they didn’t know the rules. It was sad.”
And for someone who had spent her whole life in one area – St. Anthony and Montclair State as a player, then St. Anthony again as a coach – Cathy O’Callahan found what life on the other side was all about.
“It was very tough,” O’Callahan said. “It was tough on them, because they were getting frustrated. But it was also tough on me. I was spending time just teaching them how to shoot the ball. They would come in with no form. And some didn’t want to change how they shot it. Yeah, it was frustrating.”
How bad? Try just one win in her first year at Dickinson. One solitary win.
The next year, the Rams won all of four games. Last year, they won six.
“At least they were doing better than the year before,” O’Callahan said. “That gave us hope. Every year, the goal was to have more wins than the year before and become better players than they started. I wanted them to be better in February and March than they were in November and December.”
O’Callahan said that she had a group of seniors, dedicated kids who had to endure those horrific losing days, who put the time in during the summer – playing on a cooperative summer league team in the Jersey City Recreation summer league with McNair Academic – to get ready for their final high school campaign.
“They got the chance to play during the summer and that helped,” O’Callahan said. “So they came into the fall ready to play. I knew we had the opportunity to win more games this year.”
The Rams opened some eyes by winning the Newark Collegiate Christmas Tournament. It had to be the first championship of any kind at Dickinson in over a decade.
But then, the Rams started to win other games that were mere pipe dreams in recent years. The Rams defeated Union City and Memorial. Respectability had arrived.
“We’re ecstatic,” O’Callahan said. “I don’t ask for much, but when you’re winning, everything seems to work for you. The kids play harder. They believe in themselves and have confidence.”
Lo and behold, the Rams own a 6-3 record heading into the final weeks of January. They have already matched last year’s entire win total.
O’Callahan credits the experience that the girls have collected over the years.
“I have three seniors starting right now,” O’Callahan said. “I have a bunch of seniors who have been with me for all four years. They’re starting to realize now what it takes to be successful. All they had to do was believe in themselves. We’re having fun with it.”
Leading the way is senior forward Brianna Naismith-Clay. The 5-foot-11 Naismith-Clay (yes, she has the same last name as the inventor of the sport) has exploded as a legitimate high school standout, averaging 19 points per game.
“She came to us not knowing the game at all,” O’Callahan said. “She’s come a long way. I got her to join the track team and to play volleyball and I think all of that has helped her. She has the body of an athlete. She’s very quick and uses that on the floor. She’s tremendously much better than what she once was.”
Another key player is senior point guard Raychelle McCain. The 5-foot-3 McCain can play both guard slots, but she is more dangerous with the ball in her hands. McCain is averaging eight points and five assists per game.
“She gets us going,” O’Callahan said. “She’s very good in transition.”
Diamond Maxwell is another senior guard. The 5-foot-3 Maxwell is “an excellent defender who runs and gets out in transition well,” according to O’Callahan.
Titiana Clay, the younger sister of Brianna, is a 5-foot-8 sophomore forward.
“She’s a quiet girl, very unassuming,” said O’Callahan of Clay, who is collecting eight rebounds per game.
Junior Elda Garcia is a 5-foot-5 swing guard who has good long range shooting ability and can handle the ball.
“She distributes the ball well,” O’Callahan said.
Sophomore Reana Ross is a 5-foot-8 forward who comes off the bench.
“She has an excellent shot,” O’Callahan said. “She has a bright future. She could become a very good player for us.”
Junior Alyiah Gooding is a 5-foot-10 forward who provides depth down low. O’Callahan also likes her perseverance.
“She comes to practice every day and listens,” O’Callahan said. “She’s trying to do what I tell her.”
Senior Selena Molina is a 5-foot-8 forward.
“She’s been with me from the start and has been progressing every day,” O’Callahan said.
O’Callahan is also impressed with the potential of freshmen Nicole Alvarez, a 5-foot-4 guard with ball handling ability, and 5-foot-5 Nian Brown, another guard.
“They’re very promising,” said O’Callahan, who gets a ton of help from her assistant coaches Frank Roberts and Vahon McCullers, the highly successful softball coach at McNair.
It’s late January and the Rams are in the hunt for a possible Hudson County Tournament higher seed and the unthinkable – a berth in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV playoffs. That hasn’t happened in 12 years.
“It would be nice, but we have a long way to go,” O’Callahan said. “I think we’ve shown we’ve progressed.”
They say that patience is a virtue. No one is more virtuous then that Cathy O’Callahan.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.