Jermaine Griffith was in his sophomore year with the Nottingham High boys track & field team when he heard that Northstars wrestling coach Jason “The Rock” Marasco was going to become track’s new head man in 2011.
Marasco, who was on the track team for two days in high school before going to work for his dad, had taken one college course on track and was the team’s throws coach the previous two years. It didn’t help he was taking over for Leroy Peterson, one of the most highly respected track coaches in the Colonial Valley Conference.
“I remember when he came in, we really thought he wasn’t gonna do any good,” recalled Griffith, who will attend Rutgers on a track scholarship next year. “We’re like ‘He’s a wrestling coach, what does a wrestling coach have to do with track?’”
When that comment was relayed to Marasco, he chuckled.
“I definitely felt some animosity from guys who were juniors and seniors,” Marasco said. “One of our biggest stars wouldn’t listen to anything I said. He just thought that I had nothing to bring to the table, and I guess I had to overcome that.
“I didn’t really see it that much, but I thought that they might be talking about it behind closed doors. I guess after hearing what Jermaine thought, they probably were. But pretty soon they got through some of my workouts and started to learn what conditioning and mental toughness are really about, and what it could do for a team.”
If Marasco didn’t know what he was doing, he hid it well. Since he took over, all the Northstars have done is go 27-0 in dual meets, reeling off 9-0 records each year. They won the school’s first county and Central Jersey Group III sectional crown his first year, and finished second in sectionals this year.
Nottingham sent eight individuals to the Meet of Champions in 2011, five in 2012 and four this year. Pretty good results for a track team with a wrestling coach.
“It really turned out very fortunate for us all,” Griffith said. “His first year as a coach we went undefeated, and we’ve never lost since he became coach. That’s really favorable for him, I’m thankful he was our track coach.
“He brought the intensity to the program. As a freshman, Coach Peterson taught us the mechanics and stuff, which helped. But he was in his last year, and we didn’t get that fire from him. When Marasco came in he brought the intensity and the passion. He really fired everybody up, and that’s what carried us the last three years.”
Well, that, and outstanding efforts from some of the top athletes in the school. Not to mention outstanding coaching.
Marasco is the head man and oversees things while still coaching throws, high jumps and pole vault. Andrew Parsons, the girls’ head swimming coach, handles the distance runners while Jon “Big Dawg” Adams, the varsity football coach, does sprints, relays, long/triple jumps and shares hurdles with Marasco.
“We are all mentored by a great coach in Leroy Peterson,” Adams said. “He taught us how to train our guys, how to plan and strategize a meet. He made a huge impression on all of us and mentored us over the years before Jason took over.”
Adams jokes he used to have the energy of the younger Marasco “but now I am old.” He agrees with Griffith that “The Rock” helps get his team on a roll.
“Jay is pure energy,” Adams said. “We all share his passion to be the best also. He hates losing, so do Andy and I. He goes out and recruits the guys and then coaches the heck out of them. He is always looking for new ways to train, to jump, to hurdle. I am the same way.
“Jay is always trying to find video or some resource to show our guys the best way to do it. Then all three of us train the heck out of these kids. We are a very demanding coaching staff. Our workouts are not easy. We also know when to back off. We all support one another and work well together. Some people may not like us, but we will stand up for our kids no matter what because they give us their heart and soul every day.”
The fact that all three are head coaches in other sports helps. They know how to motivate and work together to fill out the lineups each meet. Marasco and Adams also recruit players from their teams to come out for track.
The result has been phenomenal. The turnout has been bigger every year, with over 70 athletes on the roster this season. At Nottingham, being on the track team is suddenly considered cool.
“It’s awesome, probably the second coolest thing to the football team,” Marasco said. “Football is what it is, it’s just a much more popular sport. But everybody wants to be on the track team now. We get all types, the most popular, the most athletic and even the dorks. They all want to be part of it.”
When Marasco took the reins, it wasn’t just for a pay check. He spent hours on the internet and going to YouTube to study workouts and specific training methods by successful college programs. After meets, he would approach coaches from other teams for tips, and they would provide them.
“That went a long way,” he said. “And then I started going to clinics, where they had Olympians and All-Americans showing us drills that their coaches did. That’s where I picked up a lot of my information. Coach Peterson wrote down a bunch of stuff for me, (Trenton coach) Al Jennings gave me a lot of tips and drills.
“I had open ears, and I’ve taken everything everyone has told me and it works. With workouts we’ve learned, combined with the workouts I do in wrestling and Parsons does in swimming and Adams in football, they all help. Putting three head coaches’ heads together really helps.”
Of course, all the coaching in the world won’t be worth much without athletes, and Nottingham has them. The dynasty started with guys like Robert Wiggs, Ayoub Kamara, Billy Kiernan and Dameon Haynes.
“We have studs,” Adams said.
This year, Griffith was a high-profile stud who took four first-places at the Central Jersey Group III meet.
“For me, the best thing about this run was getting to coach a phenomenal young man like Jermaine Griffith for four years,” Adams said. “He is a class act. He is the finest runner to ever wear the Blue and Gold. He is equally just as fine a person.”
Griffith had some sprinting help with sophomore Arthur Johnson, transfer Alex Borzelin and freshman Reggie Phillips, while senior Michael John anchored the distance team with help from Zach Helm and Larry Velasquez. Dave Colon and Mike Kiernan were stellar in the javelin, Derek Lopez was a strong pole vaulter and numerous others all chipped in.
“We’ve beaten a lot of these teams because of that balance,” Marasco said. “We would never have beaten Trenton (for the first time ever) this year if we just had sprinters. We had distance, pole vault. We get points from all over the place.”
“We have great depth,” agreed Adams. “One or two guys can’t beat us. There may be a better distance guy or two, a better jumper, vaulter, hurdler—rarely a sprinter—but very few teams can put out the numbers and quality we do.
“And we are in a hot bed area for track while this run is going on. There are some great track teams and athletes in Mercer. To go 27-0… wow!”
Sprinting has been the staple for these successful teams, with everything else filling in around. The common thread among each athlete, not matter what the event, is dedication.
“We have some talent, but what makes it even more special is they work so hard,” Adams said. “They do not want to lose. They know the harder they work, the further they are going to go in the big meets.”
“I always tell them the harder you work the harder it is to get beat,” Marasco said. “When they look like they’re dead I just make them do another rep. I yell ‘C’mon!” and tell them pretty soon all this stuff will be on the back burner. It will just be in their imagination, and they’ll be walking around these hallways as a state champ or a county champ.
“I remember in high school, practice stunk, but now you just think of all the glory. I tell them it’s a matter of believing in themselves.”
The pep talks have certainly worked. What has made Nottingham’s effort even more impressive is that there was no winter track in the township for the last three years. It is returning next year.
“Now that winter track is back, it may explode,” Adams said.
Even if it stays on keel, Nottingham will remain a formidable program. And there is no reason to see that not happening.
“I really think they have a lot of promise for the next few years,” Griffith said. “Kids are coming out mostly because of our success and how far we’ve gone. Most people don’t like the workouts and stuff, but they want to be part of a winning team.”
“Winning is definitely contagious,” Marasco said. “The seniors coming back next year have never lost a dual meet. We’re solid for the future. As long as we keep getting a few young kids each year, like we did with Arthur last year and Alex and Reggie this year, I don’t see it ending.”
Only time will tell. Afterall, Marasco is just a wrestling coach.