Wayne Mehalick recently coached his final game for the Linden High School girls soccer team. He started his half-century coaching career in Linden with football in 1970 and also coached softball and girls winter and spring track.
By Gary Miller
After 27 years of coaching Linden High School girls soccer, it would be understandable to forget some of your players’ names. But Wayne Mehalick made sure that wouldn’t be the case. He keeps a handwritten list of every girl who has ever played for him.
“Every year I add the names, and it’s about five legal-pad pages long,” he said. “They tell me, ‘Why don’t you put them on the computer?’ I said, ‘What are you crazy?’”
But if you start the story of Mehalick’s coaching career when he took over the girls soccer program in 1992, you’re coming in halfway through the movie. He has been coaching Tigers of one sport or another since 1970.
This year, Mehalick wraps up a 50-year career on the field and in the classroom, where he taught science at LHS from 1972 to 2007. Mehalick was honored on Oct. 23 at the final girls soccer game, with his wife and daughter in attendance.
“My wife said, ‘You finally left your first wife: Linden,’” he said with a laugh during a recent conversation. “I always loved Linden. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I had a lot of fun. It was a great ride. It went too fast.
“But I knew it was time. I’m going to be 72. It’s time to take a break. Play some golf – a lot of golf!”
Athletic Director Steven Viana thanks Mehalick for his unbounded dedication to Linden and especially his players.
“We’re always going to miss him,” he said. “It’s sad to see someone go from our Linden Athletics family who has been here for 50 years. We thank him. It’s tough to say goodbye to someone who was in the district for so long. He was great. A great guy, a great coach.”
Mehalick and his wife have a home close to the beach in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., where he plans to spend a lot more time now.
“I play golf two or three times a week,” he said. “Afterward we go out for drinks and sandwiches, listen to bands. They have live beach music all over the place. It’s really cool, so we enjoy ourselves.”
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More than anything, Mehalick’s memories revolve around relationships he made with his players. He didn’t want to try to name them for fear of leaving someone out.
“There was always a line between coach and athlete. I’m not your friend,” he said. “But the camaraderie was there. They still come back to see me. I have players who are 42 years old coming back. It’s fantastic. I love every minute of it.”
Viana said his dedication to building relationships with his players is what set Mehalick apart from many coaches.
“You hire a coach and you expect them to know strategy and you expect them to know X’s and O’s and to manage a game,” he said. “But what Coach Mehalick really specialized in was building relationships and a positive culture. He really taught his players things beyond the playing field. We had a little get-together for him at the end of the season, and generations of his kids came back. It was just incredible. It only happened because of the unique feeling that he gave them.”
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Mehalick was “Linden born and raised,” he said, attending the old School No. 3 on Grier Avenue and Soehl Junior High School. He graduated from Linden High School in 1966, where he was a standout player on the football team as a center.
“We were the last team to use the old field house in ’65, then they tore it down and built the new one,” he recalled.
He went on to play at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pa., and had a short semi-pro football career.
But he was destined to return to Linden. He started as a part-time football assistant coach in 1970, before being hired as a teacher in 1972. He stayed on as a football assistant until 1986.
At the start, he assumed he would stick to coaching football, until a well-respected veteran coach gave him some advice.
“Paul Blue is the one who got me involved with girls sports back in 1975,” Mehalick recalled. “I told him I didn’t want to coach girls sports, but I fell in love with it.”
He took over the girls outdoor track team in 1975 and stayed in that position until 1997. He went on to start the girls indoor track program, coaching that from 1988 to 1997. He served as assistant coach for the softball team from 2000 to 2013, then head coach till 2016. And of course, girls soccer.
“I believe I was born to coach women,” Mehalick said. “They would do anything. They would run through walls. If you told them to do something, they would do it. It was just marvelous.
“And I always treated women and guys the same, coached them the same. You treat them like athletes. You don’t treat them like girls, you don’t treat them like guys, you treat them like athletes, because that’s what they are. And the best players are going to play.”
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Looking back on 50 years, Mehalick said, “It’s all a blur.”
“I’ve been through a lot of superintendents, a lot of principals, athletic directors,” he said. “I’ve seen them come and go.”
But then he quickly rattled off the names of all of his athletic directors: Seymour Kaplowitz, Al Jackuks, Frank Catale, Joe Martino, Steve Yesinko, Pauline Pagoulatos, and now Viana.
Memories on the field stand out, though details may fade with the years.
He was the offensive line coach on the football team’s first state championship in 1985. That was a surprise team that was picked to finish last but surprised everyone to win North Jersey Section 2 Group 3 in head coach Bucky McDonald’s first season.
“When Bucky took over, that’s when the football team started winning consistently year after year,” Mehalick said.
He also points to the Group 4 championship that the girls track team won in 1981. That happened to be the same year the baseball team won a championship, which Mehalick lamented to Tony Picaro, who was Mehalick’s 1966 LHS classmate and baseball coach at the time.
“I told him, ‘You won the baseball championship and nobody wants to hear about us!’” he said.
Whether his teams had winning seasons or not, they always played hard, he said. He recalled what an opposing coach once told him.
“When you play Linden, you better be ready, because you’re going to be bleeding when the game is over,” he recounted. “There were two ways you could play: You could play with skill or you could play hard. Our motto all these years was: Play hard. We didn’t play dirty, but we played hard.”