It was a great day for the St. Anthony High School basketball program on Saturday, when the fabulous Friars traveled to the Ritacco Center in Toms River to face Trenton Catholic in the NJSIAA Non-Public B state championship game.
It was a great day because the Friars were playing for their first state championship in four years, giving the current team their first taste of earning state glory after losing to St. Patrick’s of Elizabeth in the sectional finals in each of the previous three straight years.
But it was also going to be a day for the history books.
The Friars were gunning for the 25th NJSIAA state title in the school’s history, a distinction that was believed to be a new national record, breaking an old mark of 24 state titles compiled by Cheyenne Central High School of Wyoming.
In fact, the national record was something that legendary head coach Bob Hurley took a lot of pride in. It was one of the reasons why Hurley decided against the retirement he had planned three years ago.
Back in late 2005, Hurley said that this current season would be his last and that he would turn the reins of the program over to longtime assistant coach Ben Gamble. But thanks to the kids in his program that were going to be sophomores at the time and are current seniors, great kids like Jio Fontan and McDonald’s All-American Mike Rosario, Hurley had a change of heart and decided to stick around for a little while longer. He wasn’t a man of retirement. He was a basketball coach, through and through.
But part of the reason for sticking around was attaining what was believed to be the national record of 25 state titles. Hurley mentioned to practically everyone that reaching that national milestone meant the world to him, more than becoming the state’s all-time leader in coaching wins, more than reaching 900 career victories. The national record was one to put on the mantle and let it remain there as a reminder forever.
So, when the Friars trounced Trenton Catholic, 74-44, last Saturday in Toms River, the national record was seemingly theirs. It was the 25th state crown for the school and the 24th in Hurley’s tenure as head coach. It was a moment to be proud of.
A day later, the Friars marched in the Jersey City St. Patrick’s Day Parade, complete with a banner that proudly proclaimed that the Friars were indeed the national record holder with the 25 state titles.
It was a time for everyone involved to be excited, proud, elated. The Friars had achieved what they had been striving to attain for the last four years.
But then, a day later, a press release was sent via e-mail to the media throughout the New York metropolitan area.
The release came from Doug Huff, a longtime scholastic sportswriter and editor from West Virginia, who has dedicated nearly 50 years of his life to compiling high school sports records and achievements.
Huff is also the driving force behind the Rivals.com FAB 50, which ranks the top high school teams in football, basketball, and baseball throughout the respective seasons.
In the release, it stated that St. Anthony did not set a national record, that the national record is actually held by Benedictine Academy in Richmond, Va., which has won 35 state titles, including one this season, and Central Catholic of Wheeling, W.V. (ironically Huff’s hometown), which has captured 30 state titles in West Virginia.
In fact, Central Catholic was still alive for a 31st state title at press time.
In the press release, the confusion apparently stems from the National Federation of State High School Association’s record book, which did not include the Benedictine and Central Catholic state title totals when the record book was first published over a decade ago.
Incredibly, Huff was one of the contributors to that National Federation record book when it was being put together.
Huff said in his release that the confusion could stem from the fact that Benedictine is not a member of the Virginia state athletic association, like the NJSIAA that governs New Jersey scholastic athletics.
“But Central Catholic is a member of the West Virginia association and that school’s total of 30 state titles does not appear in the book either,” Huff explained in the press release.
Huff said that it wasn’t the first time that the National Federation record book was proven wrong, conflicting with records kept by Huff, who even wrote a book about some of the most bizarre national scholastic sports records.
I personally met Huff many years ago and wrote a column about his national record book. Upon our meeting, he had file upon file of high school records, so his reputation is impeccable.
When Hurley was contacted and told about the confusion, he said that the national record was brought to his attention a few years back by Robert Kanaby, the president of the National Federation of State High School Associations in Kansas City, who is the former executive director of the NJSIAA and a Hudson County native.
“They’re the ones who brought it to our attention,” Hurley said. “Periodically, someone would call us to remind us where we were in that list. This news is somewhat deflating, but I can find something to inflate them back up again. There’s plenty for us to focus on the next five people who call me might not even bring it up. I think we can refocus and go after something else.”
That something else is the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions, which was started in 1989 to capitalize on the immense popularity of that St. Anthony team that featured Bobby Hurley, Terry Dehere, and Jerry Walker.
The 20th version of the T of C commenced Wednesday night and the Friars are the top seed, destined to be playing in the final once again Monday night at the IZOD Center in the Meadowlands.
This latest state championship was something to behold because it took four years to make.
“It’s special because I look at it through the eyes of Mike Rosario, Jio Fontan, Tyshawn Taylor, kids who waited such a long time for it and had to overcome the big obstacle in beating St. Pat’s,” Hurley said. “We won a championship and achieved our goal last Saturday. That was for them. Now, we have to focus on getting an undefeated season. But this team is now in the position to evaluate other teams in the future because they won as well.”
Added Hurley, “I think this was very comparable to the first one  or the one where Rashon Burno was spectacular in overtime [against Shawnee in 1995],” Hurley said. “As successful as we’ve been, not winning for so long made us believe we weren’t as successful as we thought. But once we won Saturday, you could see the exuberance and the emotion. These kids were clearly focused every day, trying to win this championship all year.”
So, perhaps it’s not a national record. It’s still a New Jersey record and something to behold, something that would get even better with wins Friday night and Monday night in the Meadowlands.