It all started in 1975 when a first-year driver’s education teacher -- who longed to be a high school coach -- had the gumption to actually approach the school’s superintendent with a proposal to coach a girls’ volleyball squad.
Maria Nolan was a neophyte teacher in the Secaucus school system, fresh out of William Paterson College, where she was a member of the volleyball team.
At that time, Secaucus High School was still in its infancy.
“I was hired to teach driver’s education, but I wanted to be a volleyball coach,” Nolan recalled. “So I went in to [the late Superintendent of Schools] Artie Couch’s office and asked for a meeting. Sure enough, he gave me the job.”
Nolan’s team didn’t exactly set the world on fire that first year.
“We were 2-12,” Nolan said. “It wasn’t easy. I had to teach all the fundamentals of the game.”
But it was the spark that was needed to ignite the most dominant girls’ volleyball program in New Jersey history.
Ever since the Secaucus girls won their first NJSIAA state championship in 1983, the Patriots have captured an unprecedented 19 state titles.
No other school in New Jersey has won more than eight. Only two schools in state history have won as many as 800 matches. One is Paramus. The other is Secaucus.
Nolan, who helped to start the program in the first place, is basically the Bob Hurley of girls’ volleyball coaches. What the legendary St. Anthony Hall of Fame boys’ basketball coach achieved on the hardwood, Nolan has achieved on the court.
Currently the head coach at Immaculate Heart Academy in Bergen County, Nolan has amassed an astounding win-loss total of 927 wins and just 95 losses. She led Secaucus to 16 of its 19 state crowns -- then went to IHA and won 10 more.
At Secaucus, Nolan guided the Patriots to eight undefeated seasons and four years where the Patriots lost just one match.
Try this one on for size: In the 10 seasons from 1992 through 2001, the Patriots were an unconscionable 236-6 with nine state titles. There is no way possible that another Garden State volleyball program could duplicate such success ever again.
What makes Secaucus’ string of dominance more impressive is that none of the hundreds of players who have worn the Patriots’ uniform over the 40 years of the program ever played the sport of volleyball before high school.
Michelle Impreveduto was on those early Secaucus volleyball teams.
“There was something intriguing about volleyball,” said Impreveduto, a member of the Secaucus Class of 1978 and currently the director of cardiology at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Paterson. “In those first few steps, it was something new and we all went with it. I remember looking at a volleyball and wondering where we could go next with it. We just continued the lead from Maria. She was determined and dedicated. She instilled winning in every shape and form.”
Impreveduto said that her team went to volleyball camp to learn more about the game. Nolan did the same.
“I wanted to learn more,” Nolan said. “I went to clinics and camps all over, Buffalo, Indianapolis, Chicago. I tried to learn the most I could about the sport. I made sure that I was up on things, that I knew all the fundamentals.”
By the time Impreveduto graduated, the Patriots went 20-2 and battled for a league championship.
Linda Diemer, Class of 1980, was a member of the first Secaucus volleyball team that went undefeated, posting a 19-0 record. Back then, there was no such thing as NJSIAA playoffs for volleyball.
“It was a big accomplishment for us to go undefeated,” said Diemer, the director of curriculum and instruction for the Secaucus school district. “We were shooting to go undefeated.”
Diemer said that she remembers the impact Nolan had on her.
“She said, ‘I think you can become a great player,’” said Diemer, who had two stints as an assistant volleyball coach and was also the head softball coach for five years. “She was my inspiration back then. I owe a lot to her motivating me. There was a tremendous amount of pride being a part of Secaucus volleyball and it’s still there.”
Sheila Ulrich Rivera has been a major cog in the Secaucus volleyball machine for almost 30 years. Graduating in 1987, Rivera was an All-State player who led the Patriots to four state titles. She was an assistant coach for seven years and was an advance scout for five. Rivera finally became the head coach for two stints totaling nine years, leading the Patriots to three state crowns.
“When we first started, we had girls who played basketball and softball who then played volleyball,” said Rivera, who currently teaches Pre-Kindergarten in the Secaucus district. “I had two older sisters who played volleyball, so I went to the gym to with them to watch. I eventually went out for volleyball because I had nothing to do in the fall. But there was already a legacy that we had to continue.”
Tara McEnroe (Class of 1993) went on from Secaucus and three state championships to play volleyball via scholarship at Fordham.
“It became part of the culture that you were expected to win,” said McEnroe, now working in the medical supply business. “We’re winning and we wanted to win. That was the mentality. It set a path for me for my future success. I never would have been able to go to Fordham without volleyball.”
Beata Jastrembski Gjeroski (Class of 1996) may be the best all-around player in the program’s history. Another All-State performer, she went on to play at Seton Hall on a volleyball scholarship and is now the director of a supply chain. She still resides in Secaucus with her husband and two sons.
“I had no idea any of this could happen through volleyball,” Jastrembski Gjeroski said. “I only started playing volleyball in ninth grade. I didn’t think it was possible. I am proud of what I was able to do. I’m very grateful to have had the chance to play.”
Jen Bronowich Cannon (Class of 1998) is another former All-State performer for the Patriots who won three state championships during her tenure and lost only one match.
“When we played volleyball back then, we just had the feeling that we were never going to lose,” Bronowich Cannon said. “Once you stepped onto the court, you had that feeling. It was confidence. It was just what we did.”
Bronowich Cannon is married to former Secaucus three-sport standout Sean Cannon. She’s a fifth grade teacher in Union City.
“Once you hear the name of Secaucus volleyball, you know there’s respect,” Bronowich Cannon said. “You take that everywhere with you. It’s crazy to think that such a small school could have so much success.”
Amber Butler (Class of 1999) is a physical education teacher in the Secaucus district and was an assistant boys’ basketball coach at Secaucus, as well as the boys’ volleyball coach at Union City.
“I find it absolutely incredible that it has lasted as long as it has with no feeder program,” Butler said. “A new team comes along and they win. It’s crazy. I only lost one game in four years of high school. Those are records you don’t hear of anywhere else, unless it’s the U. Conn women (basketball team). For a very small school with no feeder system to take over the way it did is incredible.”
Tiffany Aciz Meyer (Class of 2001) won four state titles during her career and posted the almost surreal career record of 111-1 as a player. An All-State player who was named The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Year at a time when only one award was presented, Aciz Meyer went on to play at Montclair State and returned to Secaucus to teach and serve as the head volleyball coach for four seasons.
“It sort of became my career,” said Aciz Meyer, a mother of three. “I played here. I work here. I coached here. I never played volleyball before high school, but it made me choose what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It became my life after I played here. It became part of who I was. It molded me into what I wanted to be.”
Justine Muzones Latoja (Class of 2002) is another who secured an NCAA Division I scholarship (Fairleigh Dickinson) through volleyball.
“I remember Mrs. Nolan telling me in eighth grade that I should play volleyball,” said Muzones Latoja, who is now a PIC nurse at Beth Israel Hospital in Newark. “The first time I played, I was jumping and hitting the ball and it was kind of fun. It just went on from there. But volleyball is the reason why I was able to go to college. I never expected that. I learned a lot about myself through volleyball, about leadership and discipline.”
Cory Roesing (Class of 2007), another Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Year honoree who went on to play volleyball at Caldwell College, was another All-State honoree who won two state titles during her career. Roesing is currently the head volleyball coach at Secaucus, following in the footsteps of her aunt Rivera.
“It all just happened so naturally,” Roesing said. “It was always our goal to win, to be state champs. I don’t think all of it hits you until after the fact. I don’t think you realize how incredible it is. I think I want it now more for the girls as a coach than I did as a player. I want them to enjoy the same feeling.”
Julia McClure (Class of 2015) is the latest in a litany of All-State volleyball players. She led the Patriots to their last state title in 2014.
“I was actually going to go out for soccer, then I saw Sheila [Rivera] out one day and realized that I had to play volleyball, even if I didn’t know what I was doing,” McClure said. “I knew I had to fill such huge shoes when I came here to play volleyball. It’s definitely a tradition.”
“It’s pretty amazing,” McEnroe said. “The tradition is still carried on today. No matter where you go, if you say you’re from Secaucus, people want to know if you played volleyball. I can hold my head up high.”
“The kids in my (gym) classes always ask me, ‘Did you play for those teams?’” Aciz Meyer said. “They want to know. Everyone knows Secaucus volleyball now. Everyone took so much pride in it. I wouldn’t miss being part of it all over again.”
The achievements amaze even those who lived it.
“Sometimes I look up and say, `Wow, we were something else,’” Butler said. “Whenever I’m teaching or coaching the kids, I look up there and see them [the championship banners]. The kids know it.”
“There’s a legacy here, a tradition,” Rivera said. “We want the others to know that and be proud that they’re part of it. It’s awesome. It’s phenomenal. It really is a family. It’s not a team. It’s just like a family. I’m a story teller and I like saying, ‘Listen, back in the day.’ It’s nice to be recognized for something so special.”
And the architect of it all just sits back now in amazement.
“When I think about it now, it is incredible,” Nolan said. “I say, `Wow, did we accomplish all that?’ We just kept the tradition going and made sure we got better and better. We wanted to be the best every year. When I started out, I never would have believed what would have been accomplished. It’s beyond imagination. Who would think it was possible?”
It all stemmed from a simple idea. It’s now safe to say that Secaucus is the volleyball capital of New Jersey, thanks to the efforts of Nolan, her coaches and the countless players who all learned the sport on the fly _ and simply just kept winning.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.