One by one the players emerged from the locker room. Some moved a little slow given they just endured a tough overtime loss to Saddle Brook. They were greeted with a fist bump and a message, "do your homework, good job, ice up and get rest." Very interesting to note the schoolwork was the primary reference. Not a surprise if you know the coach conveying the message. "It’s all about being a student/athlete," said Hunter DeBellis, "not athlete/student,"
DeBellis is in her first year as head coach at St. Mary High School in Rutherford, NJ. She wants her team to be the best they can in the classroom and on the court.
DeBellis, in her twenties, looks as if she could take the floor with her team. Just a few years separated from her players in age she still commands respect. And admiration.
DeBellis coached for several years in the NJ Freedom AAU program in Northern New Jersey. She enjoyed working with a younger group of players yet yearned for more. "I wanted to get into coaching on the high school level," she said recently. I enjoyed working with the Freedom coaching fifth and seventh grade players. I wanted more of a challenge."
St. Mary opened up in the off season. Jamie LoBue was at the helm and did a nice job for several seasons. With the job open, Brian Gaccione recommended DeBellis. Gaccione is doing a great job as boy’s coach at the school. His daughter Gina, a talented senior at Immaculate Heart Academy (NJ) who is headed to St. Anselm (New Hampshire) played for DeBellis in the Freedom program. It was a recommendation resulting in a hiring.
DeBellis played her high school ball at a consistently strong Holy Angels (NJ) program under legendary Sue Liddy. St. Mary is a smaller school and already the new coach senses it is a special place. "It (St. Mary) is different from Holy Angels," DeBellis said. "Here the alumni have reached out and is so involved and supportive. The entire school and alumni are just one big family."
A post player makes a catch down low, turns, converts and is fouled. DeBellis quickly walks in front of her bench, fists clenched and yelling in encouragement and admiration of a nice play. Intensity personified. No surprise. All coaches aim to be themselves yet base their philosophy on a certain coach or coaches. For DeBellis it is her dad Tony- an assistant in the Bergen Catholic (NJ) football program, elite on a state and national level, for roughly three decades. "My dad is very intense (coaching)," she said. "I got that from him. My intensity in coaching is something I picked up from him." The intensity is personified not in hollering at her players or officials. Rather, it is being dialed into every possession and the game situation.
St. Mary won their first four games of the season and cracked the county top 25. The Gaels currently stand at 6-4. Wins and accolades are nice. Beyond that DeBellis is attempting to instill an ‘elite’ mindset in her program. "Doing well in your own conference is important," she said. "But I want our kids to be able to eventually compete with the Immaculate Conceptions, Holy Angels and Saddle River Days-some of Bergen County’s best. What it takes is a commitment to improve and make yourself the best you can be each and every day." She has had a few lopsided victories yet prefers a demanding one or two possession contest, going to the wire, any day. "Give me those close, competitive games anytime."
She doesn’t teach full time, rather she works in her family’s business. The teaching may not be done in the classroom setting but it’s getting accomplished on the court and beyond on a daily basis. DeBellis enthusiastically performs the job of coach, mentor and role model for her charges extremely well.
And is always there to remind them of the first order of the day, to get the homework done.