Great Expectations: Vikings hope to feed off fall sports season

Eastern girls basketball has a new coach in 2018–19 and has just one winning season since playing for a state championship in 2009–10. But there is reason for optimism with athletes on the floor and a hungry Keith Wert ready to make an impact again.

For the first time in 16 seasons, the Eastern Regional High School girls basketball team has a new coach. Longtime south Jersey coach Keith Wert, who has coached at Woodbury, Sterling, and Bishop Eustace, will try to lead the rebuilding Vikings to a winning season in 2019. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)

There is hardly any free space on the eight walls inside the two gyms at Eastern Regional High School. The school has a rich sports history, across all three seasons.

They have banners for former Olympians (track and field’s English Gardner and field hockey’s Rachel Dawson). They have more than a dozen wrestling state champions on a banner. They have collegiate champions in every sport recognized. They have an entire wall of retired numbers of student-athletes from various sports.

The 2018–19 school year is already off to a roaring start for the Vikings, particularly for the females in cardinal and navy. Eastern’s girls soccer team won its first state title in 12 years, and the field hockey team won its 20th straight state championship and the Tournament of Champions title, too.

So it’s time to hand the baton to the girls basketball team then, right? The Vikings haven’t ever won a state title in girls basketball, although they are less than a decade removed from the best season in program history, going 25–4 and losing in the state finals to North Hunterdon in 2010.

But the Vikings have failed to build off the momentum of that season. A lowlight: losing 22 straight games to begin the 2014–15 season.

Four years later, the program has a new coach for the first time in a long time and some championship caliber players, too. Keith Wert, a veteran South Jersey basketball coach, is the new man in charge and sounds cautiously optimistic when asked about the expectations of a rebuilding program with a new coach in 2019.

“At this particular time, I feel like they believe what I’m doing, or what I’m trying to do,” said Wert, who has previously coached at Woodbury (both girls and boys), Sterling, and Bishop Eustace (his alma mater). “We’ve got some pretty good athletes here, obviously. Kelli (McGroarty, a junior, and the best girls soccer player in the state this year). Ryleigh (Heck, the younger Heck sister, a freshman, who will almost surely receive a college scholarship like her siblings) from the hockey team. We’ve got quite few athletes.

“To this point, they’ve done everything I’ve asked them to do, and it hasn’t been easy. There’s a big gap between me and them, and probably many of the things they’ve seen (from me), they haven’t seen before.”

The gap is a generational one. Wert, at 63, is old enough to be their grandfather. But, as he adds, “age is only a number.”

Like a fine wine, basketball acumen ages well.

“From what I’m seeing so far, they enjoy playing the style that I’m trying to implement,” said Wert, a defensive-minded coach. “We’re trying to play fast. We’re trying to get after people on the defensive end. They seem to be enjoying it.”

First-year Eastern Regional High School girls basketball coach Keith Wert, 63, is reenergized as a coach after retiring as a teacher 4 ½ years ago: “It’s the highlight of my day, every day. I just love doing it.” (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)

Expecting immediate success might be asking too much, particularly when the previous coach (Joe Murphy) was in place for 15 years. A new coach means new messages and mantras, styles and schemes. It would only seem natural to expect some bumps along the road to success in the union between a team and a new coach.

But Wert, who stepped aside from Woodbury in the early 2000s to coach his twin daughters Shawna and Dana in youth basketball and then in AAU, has had success early before. In his one season at Sterling, Wert took over a program that had finished in second-to-last place in the Colonial Conference the year prior and guided them to a 16–9 record.

And it surely doesn’t hurt to have a veteran in McGroarty and a newcomer in Heck who both know a little bit about a winning mentality.

“Absolutely,” Wert said. “Absolutely. Plus Anna (Accardo) has been playing varsity for four years. And we’ve got (Gabriella) Payne coming back, she got hurt playing soccer. She’s on her way back.”

The Olympic Conference won’t be forgiving to a Vikings team that might need some time to gel. But to bet against them might be foolish, too, especially if they start off strong this month and feed off the momentum after the holidays.

“I think this team can compete,” Wert said. “The biggest challenge is probably going to be for me to get enough sleep to keep doing this.”

The white-haired coach laughed. He retired from teaching history at Woodbury four-and-a-half years ago. He’s re-energized with the ability to start his day fresh with coaching basketball again.

“It’s the highlight of my day, every day. I just love doing it,” he said. “And I will tell you this: I did it as a teacher, spending all day in the classroom and then coming in after school and doing something that requires the most energy, after being drained all day. I want to tell you something: the teachers that are both teaching and coaching, God bless them.”

Eastern girls basketball team listens as first-year coach Keith Wert provides instruction in a pre-game workout prior to a recent scrimmage against Haddonfield. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)