Shelly Dearden was still a star athlete at Ewing High School when she decided what she wanted to do.
“I know in high school a lot of kids don’t know what they want, but I knew I wanted to be a teacher,” Dearden said. “I wanted to help kids and be there for kids from high school on. I guess I’m one of the lucky ones.”
Others will say the lucky ones are those that were taught or played for Dearden, who announced that she is retiring from coaching and teaching after more than three decades—the last 32 years with her alma mater EHS— before her Blue Devils boys basketball team headed into the Central Jersey Group III state tournament.
“I just feel that I’m ready,” Dearden said. “It’s time. You know when you’re ready. You know when it’s time. It’s hard to explain. You just know. I put in all these years, so I’m ready.”
Dearden was a winner as a player and coach. She is already in the Ewing High School Hall of Fame as a three-sport athlete, The College of New Jersey Hall of Fame as a womens’ player, and will be inducted April 7 into the Mercer County Basketball Hall of Fame as part of the second class ever. She was the first female player to score 1,000 points in her Ewing High School career.
Dearden made history as the first coach to have coached teams in three different sports to state championships. She took the EHS girls soccer team to the 1991 title, the EHS girls basketball team to the 1999 crown, and the EHS boys basketball team to the 2012 state title. As a competitor, she was thrilled by each of those teams, but it’s not those successes for which she wants remembered.
“I want them to remember the kids and me being able to help the kids over the years,” Dearden said. “There are so many of them. I did it for them. I already had my heyday when I played in high school and college.
“It’s about the players and my assistant coaches and the people along the way. Hopefully I’m remembered as a person who dedicated herself to the kids and the players and was a person who was there for them.”
Dearden also coached the women’s soccer team at Mercer County Community College for 12 seasons and a season each of softball at MCCC and volleyball at Rider University before returning to focus on Ewing teams.
After a 15-10 2019 season that ended with a 67-62 loss to Wall in the CJ III semifinals, Dearden exits with 531 victories split between coaching the Ewing girls’ team and boys’ teams. Her impact, however, can’t be measured in games or victories.
“How do you put that into words? In 32 years, how many kids do you impact? How do you put any type of quantitative measure on that? It’s not possible to put that into any type of measure or words,” said Ewing athletic director Bud Kowal. “I don’t think there’s any question she puts in as much time and works as hard any one could. Her work ethic is pretty significant.”
Kowal saw it first-hand when Dearden made waves when she took over the boys basketball team in 2004. The decision to hire a woman to coach a boys sport was met with some skepticism.
“In the beginning, the first couple years the teams weren’t very good, and you’d hear some of that,” Kowal said. “Winning is great medicine for that. If you win, no one cares if you’re a man or woman or black, white, purple, or green.”
Dearden was aware of the challenges that came with the new job. She had coached her three sons in basketball, baseball and soccer, but the high school job came with elevated expectations.
“I felt I had to put in more time because there were so many skeptics out there, and so many questioning me getting the job that I had to do more,” Dearden said. “I had to go out there and be accepted being a woman coaching boys’ basketball.”
She adds that even today having a woman coaching a boys team is not always accepted.
“That’s the way some people were brought up,” she said. “It sounds old school cliché that the woman stays at home and does those types of things. I know society has changed, but there are still people out there that believe women shouldn’t be coaching boys, and there’s still people out there that believe I shouldn’t have been on the sidelines.”
Behind the scenes, Dearden had the support of Kowal and the EHS administration, and she had a supportive crew at home with husband John and their three sons. “My husband deserves all the credit in the world for my children and being the good kids they are and young men they are,” Dearden said. “He’s the one that was there while I was coaching. All the accolades I’m receiving, he really deserves them more so because he took care of business at home for me.”
They still live in Ewing where she grew up and had the chance to come back to coach and teach.
“That meant a great deal,” Dearden said. “Many, many years ago, Barb Brower (long-time Fisher Middle School principal who retired in 2017)—who’s a friend of mine and we went to high school together—and I said we’ll come back to coach Ewing. My first year coaching for the girls, she was my assistant coach. And then she eventually coached at the 7th and 8th grade level because that’s where she was teaching. It was in our minds back in high school that I would hopefully some day come back and coach here.”
Coaching in the same town where she grew up, played sports and went to school was a plus for her. It helped when she got into coaching.
“It was great because I had an advantage, knowing the town, knowing the people, knowing the community is a sports minded community, it helped quite a bit,” she said. “It helped also when I became the boys coach, because some people already knew who I was and the success I had as a girls coach. You still have your skeptics, you always have your skeptics, but it helped when I did receive the job as boys coach, being from the area and being in the community.”
She says she is proud that the Ewing teams she coached continued a winning tradition that took her back to her childhood. It was important to her as an alumna and coach.
“I’m just happy that I was able to do it, and instill rules and regulations and discipline and commitment and dedication that get lost in the world of today,” Dearden said. “Hopefully they understand what that means and what commitment means.
“I think they do when you see all the alumni that come back and the Ewing tradition. It was strong when I was a player here, when I went away to college and watched and when I came back. That’s one thing I was happy to do, that I was able to continue that tradition.”
Ewing already knew it had a winner when it hired her as a pioneer. Dearden continued to win when she moved over to the boys side.
“I think she would agree with this, it was much more important to coach the kids and be successful and win games then to prove that as a woman she could do all those things,” Kowal said. “I don’t think that she was trying to show a woman could do it had anything to do with it. She wanted to be the best coach and teacher and prove that the team was able to win.”
Dearden will conclude her career in special education teaching at the end of the school year. Her basketball duties won’t end until a new hire is made. Her job was posted even before EHS concluded its season. She is hoping by the time the Moody Park League starts in the summer, a successor will be in place.
“I’m hoping they will name someone before then so that when someone new comes in they can experience Moody Park,” Dearden said. “I’ll encourage the new coach to participate in Moody Park. I think Mark Smith (Moddy Park League director) does an excellent job up there. The kids enjoy playing at Moody Park. That’s been a tradition as far back as when I was keeping score at 8-9 years old and Emil Wandishin was running the league.”
A Ewing lifer, Dearden doesn’t anticipate going too far anytime soon, though her and John’s sons are now 27, 25 and 22 years old, and Dearden and he would like to visit their grandson in Georgia more.
“I’m a people person,” Dearden said. “No matter what it is, I enjoy helping people. I might do some volunteer work. I might get into Special Olympics. There are other things I enjoy doing besides coaching. I haven’t found anything quite yet. I’ll find something.
“I enjoy reading, helping people. I’m sure I’ll volunteer somewhere or maybe get a part-time job to stay involved somewhere in the community. I might babysit my grandson.”
Family remains immensely important to Dearden. For 32 of her 34 years of teaching and coaching, her extended family included Ewing High School and that’s tough to step away from after so long.
“I have been getting up every day and going to school every day for a very long time,” Dearden said. “It’s definitely going to be strange the first day I don’t have to get up. I’ll probably get up and get ready and then say, ‘Oh, shoot, I don’t have to go to work.’”
She said that she’s especially miss the students of Ewing High School. “They’ve been awesome and great and hopefully I did them justice and helped them out as best I could. I talk to a lot of people here in school. I’ll miss my colleagues too, all the friends I’ve made along the way.”