By Elizabeth Wulfhorst |
MIDDLETOWN TOWNSHIP – Long-time Mater Dei Prep softball coach and math teacher Jeanne Dickinson has always appreciated numbers. And the numbers associated with her are impressive by anyone’s standards: one state championship; one New Jersey State Coach of the Year; 13 Shore Conference Division titles; and an overall record of 496-291-1.
But after 36 seasons as head coach, she’s decided to step down from the post she’s owned almost her entire adult life.
Dickinson was a sophomore at Mater Dei in the spring of 1975 when she convinced nine of her friends to try out for the baseball team since the school didn’t offer softball. “Although none of us made it,” said Dickinson, “we made a point that there was enough of an interest in the sport.” Mater Dei started a softball program the following year and, other than during her four years in college, Dickinson has been involved with every softball season at the school since then. In 36 years of coaching, she’s only had two losing seasons.
Dickinson played field hockey and club softball in college and knew she wanted to return to Mater Dei to coach at some point. “In all honesty,” explains Dickinson, “it was a long-term goal of mine to come back to teach and coach at Mater Dei. It just so happened that it worked out right away.” She graduated college in May of 1981 and was hired that June as a math teacher and varsity softball coach. “The timing was perfect.”
Former Mater Dei athletic director Gary Carmody remembered Dickinson as “one of the best coaches I ever had (who) always had the best approach to sports.”
“Jeanne always made sure every player put the team first before the individual,” said Carmody. “In a small school, that team-first mentality always paid off, evident in her successful career,” which he felt was well-deserved. “Her quality as coach and motivator,” is what has made the Mater Dei Prep program consistently one of the top in the Shore Conference, according to Carmody.
Even as a young woman, Dickinson knew she had the confidence to handle the demands of the head coaching position, and thanks to her inside status, she also knew the talent available to her. “Three of my sisters were here,” said Dickinson. “I knew there was a very good nucleus of kids who could play the game.”
Dickinson admitted she’s always been competitive. And she is part of an athletic family. “I grew up playing and watching baseball with my dad and brother. My parents have always been very supportive of whatever I choose to do,” Dickinson said.
Over the years she coached three nieces, as well as the three sisters, even cutting her sister, Geri (MD ‘83), for not going all out during try-outs, which did not go over with her family. “I told her at home because I didn’t want her to look at the list and not see her name there,” explained Dickinson. “She cried. I cried. My mother screamed, yelled at my father to talk to me, ‘Knock some sense into her. She can’t cut her sister!’ ”
But that action solidified Dickinson’s no-nonsense coaching style and her reputation as being fair and impartial.
Under Dickinson, her sister, Patti (MD ‘84) became an all-Shore pitcher; sister Tracey Klatt (MD ‘86) also a great player, unfortunately tore her ACL her senior year but, according to Dickinson, Klatt jokingly says it meant Dickinson didn’t have the chance to cut her.
Dickinson coached numerous all-state and all-division athletes over the years and made a difference in the lives of nearly 400 players over her 36 seasons. She said she keeps a part of all of them with her: “Hundreds who have made an impact on me,” she said.
She fondly remembers the great – and the not-so-great – athletes who made a difference on the field. Some players mean “so much more to the team than just their athletic ability,” said Dickinson, and those are the ones, she said, who make coaching worth it.
And they remember her, too.
One of Dickinson’s star athletes, Shonda Becker (MD ’86), is convinced her old coach’s “heart pumps blood of Seraph blue.” Becker remembered Dickinson in the classroom as “a positive, supportive, understanding teacher who had high expectations of her students and brought out the best in them” and said on the field, her “passion for the game was obvious.” Dickinson’s coaching style “kept the players loose and the game, itself, fun.”
Becker also considers Dickinson “a friend whose contact with (and) dedication to her players did not end when they graduated from high school. I will always remember her showing up in Massachusetts years after I had graduated to watch one of my softball games,” said Becker.
Lauren Florio (MD ’08) was part of the state championship-winning 2008 team. She called Dickinson “more than a teacher, and far more than a coach. She is a motivator,” Florio said, “the difference between an average student and a student who excels.”
Florio remembered a promise the team made to Dickinson after losing in the state semifinal game in 2007: they would come back and win it all next year if Dickinson would promise to dye her hair blonde when they won. “We were finally able to give her that championship she deserved and that blonde hair she always wanted,” said Florio. “She is the true definition of a role model and her legacy at Mater Dei will never be forgotten.”
Tyrah Graves (MDP ’17) who lives in Rahway and commuted to Mater Dei Prep every day for school said Dickinson, “opened numerous doors for me and pushed me to limits I myself didn’t know I could go to. She has a tough love approach that set her apart from any other coach I had,” explained Tyrah. “She wasn’t just my coach or a teacher at MDP, she was someone I looked to in tough times, someone who helped me. She created a bond with not only me but my family, too; she understood my struggles, which made my decision to come back each year and take the ride to Middletown instead of my local high school down the block easy,” continued Tyrah. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay her or form the words to thank her for letting me experience MDP because without her I wouldn’t have grown as an individual. I will always be grateful for Jeanne.”
However, Dickinson says she knows she hasn’t been liked by every player, parent and opposing coach. But she turns the tables on those critics, using a word she knows she’s been called and appropriating it for her benefit, becoming a “Babe In Total Control of Herself.”
As if to drive this point home, Tess Gagliano (MD ‘08) said, “Having Jeanne as a coach was the best thing that could have happened to me as I entered high school. People get nervous to start college and play for a college coach, I wasn’t nervous at all. I knew nothing could be scarier than the wrath of Jeanne Dickinson.”
Tess’s sister Kate Gagliano (MD ’05) also played for Dickinson and attributes her success and confidence to the unconditional support Dickinson gave her on the field and in the classroom. “Any freshman‘s first reaction when entering high school is filled with nerves. I was able to turn those nerves into all the confidence in the world knowing that Jeanne would be by my side throughout the journey,” said Kate. “High school was full of ups and downs but knowing Jeanne was there with me made it the best experience. I am so thankful for having her in my life and being able to continue our relationship all of these years after graduating Mater Dei.”
“In this day we have many coaches who coach skills and X’s and O’s but don’t necessarily instill important life values,” said Lance Bennett, Mater Dei Prep athletic director. “In my short time here at Mater Dei Prep I’ve witnessed Coach Jeanne’s passion for accountability while demanding a certain level of maturity. Aside from her great winning history, we need more coaches like her who will hold today’s youth to a higher standard.”
Dickinson also holds the distinction of being one of the only coaches in the Shore Conference to have a tie on her record, which came in a 2003 game against Keyport. After 15 innings, with the score even and the sky “pitch black,” the game was called. According to Dickinson there is now an international tie-breaking rule for any game that goes past 10 innings, but at the time there wasn’t. Since the game had no bearing on title or playoff standings, it was never rescheduled and thus went on the books as a tie, a rarity in high school softball.
When asked if she remembered the year of the game, Dickinson pulled out a thick, battered blue folder, full of neatly organized papers covered with columns and rows of handwritten numbers—a record of every single one of her 36 seasons. She quickly paged though it and confirmed the game took place in 2003. “I’ve always kept them,” she said, almost wistfully, about the file. “Every year.”
So why is someone who so obviously loves the game ready to retire?
“I’ve been thinking about it all season. I just think it’s time,” said Dickinson. “I think the kids need new, young blood. Things have changed. The kids have changed. I’ve changed. The game has changed. I still have the passion I just don’t have the patience. And with today’s kids you need a lot of patience.”
While it is still a pitcher’s game, “now there’s more offense, you’ve got the short game, big hitters. It’s a lot more than putting nine people on the field who can catch and throw,” said Dickinson. Her coaching style has changed over the years, too, due to the kids, she said. “I’m too old to teach from scratch.”
And softball is competing with other sports for athletes. Her first year Dickinson had 60 girls trying out for the team, this year there were 14. “Other sports are effecting the game,” said Dickinson. The introduction of lacrosse and a great Mater Dei Prep track program both take girls away from the sport. Dickinson feels the days of the multi-sport athlete are waning, with players focusing year-round on one sport.
Dickinson was quick to point out there is a great group of kids coming back and coming in to Mater Dei Prep. She feels putting someone with “a new passion, a new eye,” in the position is exactly what the kids need. There are so many young women who had college softball careers who are looking for a chance to coach, Dickinson said.
Dickinson is proud of her teams, especially the outstanding 2008 State Championship team from “the little school that could.” She explained how 10 kids from different walks of life came together on the field for two and a half hours. “You knew there was something different, something special with those kids,” said Dickinson. “They found a way to balance their whole senior experience,” she said, explaining how she and an assistant coach drove to Seaside at 2 a.m. to pick the team up from the prom after-party and get them back and ready for a 2 p.m. Monmouth County championship game. “It was a great year.”
Dickinson also recognized the many other great teams, including the state championship game team from 1984, just three short years after she took the coaching reins. She gives kudos to other Shore coaches who have pushed her to be better over the years, like Nancy Williams, a long-time coach at Shore Regional High School. “We had a wonderful love-hate relationship,” said Dickinson. “She is somebody I admire tremendously.”
Even though “softball has always been my passion,” said Dickinson, it’s not the only sport she’s been involved in at Mater Dei; over the course of her 36 years at the school, Dickinson has coached field hockey (she started the program), girls soccer (coached for five years), girls basketball (as an assistant for 19 years), tennis (nine years), and even bowling (two years).
And softball has given her that break from math. While she uses some of the same ideas – drop-stepping to the shortest distance between two points; keeping your body parallel to the ground; getting low – there isn’t much correlation.
Although she is leaving the field, Dickinson is not leaving the classroom and will continue to teach honors level math at Mater Dei Prep.
“I’m here to help, absolutely,” Dickinson said of the possibility of assisting with the team in the future. “But I would never want to step on anyone’s toes.” She conceded that “it’s a tough situation, having a coach of 36 years.”
When asked about her legacy at Mater Dei Prep after a career on the field, Dickinson offered these humble words:
“I hope that they see me as somebody who was hard but fair, had their backs, and was there always, always. Always.”
This article was first published in the July 20-27, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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