Former assistant coaches Anthony Drejaj and James Harper have been promoted to be head coaches for the Linden High School boys and girls basketball teams, respectively.
By Gary Miller
Two familiar faces will be taking over the top jobs for the Tigers basketball teams this winter.
New head coaches are stepping at Linden High School for both the boys and girls programs. Each is a former assistant coach.
James Harper is taking over the girls program after having been an assistant coach for two years under Jason Fekete, who was promoted to vice principal this summer. On the boys side, Anthony Drejaj has been an assistant coach since 2009, and is taking over for longtime head coach Phil Colicchio.
“We couldn’t be happier to introduce our two new head basketball coaches,” said Athletic Director Steven Viana. “Not only did Coach Harper and Coach Drejaj impress during the interview, they possess the ‘it’ factor. When looking for a head coach, you are looking for someone who is passionate, driven, experienced, and above all else, has a love for our children. I’m confident that we have exactly what we are looking for in these two outstanding coaches.”
Both coaches said they were happy to begin their head coaching careers in a place they already feel at home.
“It so much easier, rather than going into a new situation or a new school district,” Drejaj said. “What made me feel really comfortable with this whole situation is that I was stepping into a head coaching job where I was very familiar with the kids, faculty, administration. I have a good rapport with all those people.”
Harper said that already being familiar with the players gives him a head-start, and that the girls have responded well to the change.
“There was a big turnout,” he said. “We had about 30 girls come out for the team this year. I took that as a positive sign that a lot of people showed interest.”
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Though Drejaj is stepping into the head coach’s role for the first time, his basketball resume is impressive. He starred in high school for Seton Hall Prep, where he graduated in 2002 as the Essex County Player of the Year. He was also a two-time selection to the All-State second team.
From there he went on to a full scholarship at Saint Louis University, where he was a four-year starter and is third all-time in three-pointers and fourth in steals. He played professionally overseas in Iceland, Tunisia, Jordan and Kosovo.
Drejaj has been part of championship caliber teams since coming to Linden and sees it as a challenge to maintain that tradition.
“I’m extremely excited for the opportunity,” he said. “I’ve always wanted this. We’ve been pretty competitive since I’ve been here, and I intend on keeping that going. I really don’t see much of that changing.”
And he says his players are up to the task.
“We have a lot of quality basketball players,” Drejaj said. “I think that guys who were on the bench who are coming back have the experience of that big game feeling. So I think that they’ll be able to step in. I like what I’ve seen already from these guys. They’re becoming leaders in practice already.”
Drejaj, who is a woodwork teacher at the LHS Academy of Science and Technology, knows that his first job is to teach his players to be good students and citizens on and off the court.
“Once we step outside the gym, whatever was said on the court, whether it was constructive criticism or praise, it’s a different relationship once you step off the court,” he said. “I don’t plan on being friends with my players, but we’re going to have a good relationship. They can come see me or talk to me. Whenever they need my help, I’m definitely going to open my arms to them and help them whatever way I can.”
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Harper says he knows the girls team has been playing in the shadow of the boys team, but he has high hopes of changing that.
“It’s never too early to start thinking big,” he said. “County championship, state championship. I don’t think we’ve had a state championship on the girls level since the early ’90s. I just want to make a mark there. We want to have our own light and make a name for ourselves.
“It’s definitely long-term goals. I think in the next few years we can turn the program into something that can be competing at the end of the season each year.”
Since coming to Linden two years ago, Harper has been a fourth-grade teacher at School No. 1 and the JV girls basketball coach. Before that he taught in Long Branch for six years and was a middle school boys basketball coach in Little Ferry and Eatontown. He played college basketball at Felician College, graduating in 2010, and for Long Branch High School, where he was part of a sectional championship in 2005.
Harper said he feels his players can relate well to him seeing as how he is not so far removed from playing himself. He showed that he still has skills last year when the girls team hosted the “Alley-Oop for Autism” fund-raising tournament at LHS. Harper was MVP for the Linden Public Schools team competing against Linden police, fire and public works.
“I still feel like I could be on the court,” he said. “I like to still play at a high level, so there’s a lot of things I think I can explain and also show them physically on the court. That’s something I bring to the table.”
And coaching the person is even more important than coaching the player, Harper said.
“They’re student athletes,” he said. “The academics is why we’re here. This is a school activity. Basketball teaches discipline, determination, hard work, and mixed with what you bring to the classroom, you have a wide range of options going forward.”