Bill DeFazio vividly recalls the day that started his career as a high school basketball coach.
“It was 1977 and I was standing outside St. Mary’s High School with Bob Hurley and Mike Coyne,” DeFazio said. “They said that St. Anthony needed a girls’ basketball coach and they wanted me to be the guy. I laughed at them. I said, ‘I’m a football guy. I don’t coach basketball.’ But they told me to go home and think about it.”
So DeFazio went home with the thoughts of the two St. Anthony coaches dancing in his head. Could he really be a girls’ basketball coach? After all, DeFazio earned a solid reputation as a football coach, first building the powerful St. Paul’s (Greenville) CYO grid program, then moving on to be an assistant coach under the legendary Jackie Moore at Marist.
Coaching girls’ basketball? It was the furthest thing from DeFazio’s mind.
But that night, after running into Hurley and Coyne, DeFazio went home and began to think about it. While he was home, he started rolling a basketball around with his two young daughters, Stacy and Missy.
“We rolled the ball around together for about an hour, and it was fun,” DeFazio said. “It was then that it hit me. I decided to give it a shot. I was a little worried because when I coached football, I was a bit of a nut. One side of me said that I had to change, and the other side said that I should just be myself.”
DeFazio took the job at St. Anthony and never looked back. He had no clue about where anything stood in girls’ basketball in New Jersey.
“I went to the store one day that first year and a guy tapped me on the shoulder,” DeFazio said. “He said, ‘Congratulations, your team is the No. 6 team in the state.’ I said, ‘State of what?’ I didn’t even know what he meant. I never read the (Star-Ledger, which conducted the state rankings). I knew the boys were good at St. Anthony. I had no idea about the girls.”
That first St. Anthony team featured some standout players like Diane Casella, who went on to have a fine career at St. Peter’s College, as well as Debbie Carney, Tess Schmidt and Diane Ashe.
“We were pretty good back then,” DeFazio said. “I remember the first win against St. Mary’s of Jersey City. That’s when I knew I was in it for good. I knew that I really loved coaching. But never in my life did I think I would stay in it for 27 years.”
Twenty-seven years later, DeFazio is still coaching girls’ basketball. He left St. Anthony in 1988 and a year later, he got the call from former Marist athletic director and current Bayonne AD Mike Pierson.
Marist, which at one time was an all-boys’ institution, was trying to establish itself as a girls’ basketball power, and Pierson thought DeFazio could do it.
“When I left St. Anthony, I thought I was out of it for good,” DeFazio said. “I thought I might get back into football somewhere. I never thought I would stay this long. But when that call came from Pierson, he’s the one who brought me back.”
DeFazio has been the head coach at Marist since 1989 and has been the architect of a few HCIAA and NJSIAA Parochial B titles.
But last week, while the Lady Knights were playing in their Christmas Tournament, DeFazio was able to reach a rarified milestone when he became only the ninth coach in New Jersey state history to collect his 500th career win.
Marist defeated St. Joseph-by-the-Sea of Staten Island, 65-58, in the opening round of the tournament to give DeFazio the milestone victory. The team presented DeFazio with several autographed basketballs and even presented the coach with a neon “500” in commemoration of the event.
What made the evening even more memorable for the coach was the fact that 10 of his former players were in attendance, anticipating the milestone.
“That made me flash back and think of all the great players I’ve been fortunate to have coached,” DeFazio said. “It meant a lot to me that they were all there. It actually choked me up.”
Incredibly, of the nine coaches in New Jersey to reach the impressive 500-victory plateau, three coach in Hudson County. DeFazio joined Bayonne’s Jeff Stabile and Harrison’s Jack Rodgers in the 500-win club.
“To be in a class with Stabile and Rodgers is a great honor for me,” DeFazio said. “No one can ever equal what those guys have done. They’re in a class by themselves.”
However, there was no time for revelry and celebration after the 500th win was secured. The Lady Knights had to move on in the tourney, facing nemesis Immaculate Heart Academy, which had defeated Marist six straight times.
“They owned us every year, but we controlled the game this time,” DeFazio said. “The kids responded well for this game and that was even a better feeling. Our kids really wanted it.”
A day later, DeFazio got win No. 502, when the Lady Knights defeated Paterson Kennedy to capture the tourney title. Senior guard Janelle Biamonte, who declared her intention to attend the United States Military Academy in West Point a few weeks ago, won the Most Valuable Player award of the 16th annual tourney.
“She’s been playing real well,” said DeFazio, whose team owns a 5-0 record heading into the regular season HCIAA Coviello schedule. “She comes to play every night.”
Fellow senior Christina Smith, a forward, has also been a steady performer.
“Christina has really been a force for us,” DeFazio said. “Everyone is blending in nicely.”
The other three key players for Marist are Jazmyn Hinton, Ebony Thomas and Christina Centeno. DeFazio never dreamed he could attain such a milestone.
“To be honest, no, never,” DeFazio said. “But now, I look at the basketballs in my office and say to myself, ‘I’m still here.’ As long as the man upstairs lets me, I’m going to keep doing it. It’s very humbling when you reach a milestone like this. It makes you take a step back and realize all the things you went through, all the kids you coached. I just can’t put the feelings into words. It really is special.”
– Jim Hague