ASBURY PARK PRESS: Ex-Hound Mike Kearney Leads Team to 21-0 RecordFebruary 22, 2006
Mike Kearney enjoys perfect return;
Coach glad to be back at old school
Asbury Park Press
By Scott Clayton
They say that all roads lead to home. Mike Kearney has found truth in that adage, even if the round trip was nearly 6,000 miles.
Kearney played basketball at Assumption College from 1981-84 for Coach Joe O'Brien.
A former high school basketball star at Saint Joseph's High School in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Kearney is back coaching at his alma mater - now named Monsignor Donovan - and has guided his team to a perfect 21-0 record and a berth in tonight's Shore Conference Tournament semifinals at the Ritacco Center on the campus of Toms River North.
Hounds freshman forward MAREK KULIG played his high school ball for Kearney.
In between Kearney's days as a heady guard for coach Steve Gepp's Griffins and this season's success, was a venture out to the West Coast where he directed Verbum Dei High School to a California Interscholastic Federation Division IV Championship in 1995. While basketball has not been the driving force in Kearney's life's journey, the sport has never been off his radar.
"He's just a really dedicated man," Griffins senior guard Randall Stallworth said. "He's especially dedicated to this area and to basketball in general."
"His kids play the same way he did," Gepp said. "They put a lot of effort into the game and play great defense."
After graduating from Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., a planned year of teaching in Belize fell through and led Kearney briefly back to Monsignor Donovan. The next step was law school at George Mason University, after which Kearney felt the itch to teach in an inner-city school. Kearney hooked up with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, who placed him as an English teacher at Verbum Dei, a Jesuit school in the rough-and-tumble Watts neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles.
According to Verbum Dei's Web site, the school is 50 percent African American and 50 percent Latino, and more than half of its 325 students require financial aid. Once involved with the basketball program, a potential career in law was shelved and Kearney's planned one-year stay kept getting longer and longer.
"In the 1970s, Verbum Dei was one of the top basketball teams in the country," Kearney said, "but they hadn't had a lot of success in the '80s. They had coaches come in and out, but they were always on their way someplace else."
After a year as the junior varsity coach, Kearney began a six-year run with the varsity that saw the team reach four sectional finals and win two. In 1994, the year before winning a state title, Kearney's starting point guard Andre Miller won the John Wooden Award as California's top prep player. Miller now runs the point for the NBA's Denver Nuggets.
Kearney slid over to Salesian High School in East Los Angeles for three years before getting a call from Monsignor Donovan principal Dr. Edward Gere asking Kearney to consider returning to Toms River.
"At that point, my wife (Kim) and I were living in an apartment in L.A.," Kearney said. "We didn't relish the idea of raising our sons in an apartment, or having to live an hour away out in the desert. There was a lot of soul searching. I wasn't sure I would like it here. There was a great sense of accomplishment in teaching inner-city kids."
And what has Kearney learned in his time back at Monsignor Donovan?
"It doesn't matter where you are, kids are going to have problems," Kearney said. "I've really enjoyed coaching the kids that are students here."
All Kearney has done to this point is lead his team to the best start in school history and the distinction of being the only team in the state without a loss.
In addition to the quickness and ball-handling of Stallworth at point guard, James Shinn and Kyle Milana are part of a formidable front line that will look to escape upset-minded Freehold in tonight's 7:45 p.m. game.
"It's a very rare group," Kearney said. "As much success as they've had on the court, what astounds people is what good kids they are off the court."
"He was here when the original teams had success and he helped build the program," Shinn, a 6-foot-5 center, said. "He went to California to coach some great players, so for him to come back here and coach a bunch of unathletic kids really means a lot to us."