By Frank Rizzo
MONTICELLO February 16, 2001 His family and friends were in attendance, as were two dozen-odd former players.
The celebratory cake was baked, the commemorative basketball and plaque were ready.
The karma, somehow, was right.
For Dick ONeill not to have won his 300th game on Tuesday night would have been some kind of travesty.
But his players did not let him down, putting on a strong second half to whip archrival James I. ONeill 66-50 in the Orange County Interscholastic Athletic Association (OCIAA) Division III game.
Had the weather not intervened the week before, ONeill might have reached his milestone against Goshen, seven years to the day after his 200th win on February 7, 1994. That also came against James I. ONeill, and even the margin of victory was the same: 61-45.
When the buzzer sounded Tuesday night the veteran coach sat stunned while all around him a celebration broke out.
It hit me all at once, ONeill confessed. It wasnt that big a deal until it happened. At the risk of sounding pompous, it was more of a big deal to everyone else, especially my family.
Among the first to wend his way through a crowd of Monticello players to congratulate him was J.I. ONeill forward Trent Brumfield.
Monticello athletic director Ken Garry presented the ball and cake (baked by Tara Brust, mother of ballplayer Devin). The cake had the Irish saying Faugh A Ballagh (Clear the Way), a nice touch from one of Irish descent to another.
Garry also thought of playing When Irish Eyes are Smiling over the loudspeakers as a tearful ONeill acknowledged the crowd.
Monticello superintendent Eileen Casey handed the coach the plaque, after which ONeill said a few words: What this means is, one, Ive been coaching a long time; two, Im getting old; and three, Ive had some great players.
While milling with well-wishers ONeill looked over a scrapbook put together by his wife Diane and daughter and onetime coaching assistant Dana Dembrowski. ONeill took the ribbing in stride as people perused old pictures of him with a full head of hair and bushy beard.
Dave Rowley, his former assistant of many years, and now Sullivan West/Jeff-Youngsville principal, was on hand. Rowley said he could not possibly miss this game, even though his J-Y Trojans were engaged in a big game of their own that night. (See story this page).
They understood, Rowley said of the Trojans.
Though J.I. ONeill coach Pete Marotta was disappointed with the loss, he was happy to be a part of his coaching colleagues big night. The pair golf together and played for years on the same team in the Middletown softball league.
The contest started out with a flurry of bombs as the teams sank seven three-pointers in the opening quarter. Monticello point guard Rickie Villegas accounted for all three Panther treys as the quarter ended 14-14.
The offense went on vacation in the second quarter, with the Raiders outscoring the hosts 8-5 to take a 22-19 halftime lead.
They wanted to win so badly they lost focus, ONeill commented. I told them, Fellas, dont play for me, play for yourselves.
Center John DeGroat, who missed three practices due to illness, roused himself to score 19 of his 22 points in the second half.
I told the team, Dont treat this game any different. Dont think about Coachs 300th win. Just go out and play hard.
We stepped up and stopped their perimeter shooting, DeGroat said of his teams defensive success.
Marotta commented, Monticello went man-to-man and we stopped being patient. We needed to continue to look to our second and third option and we stopped doing that, we panicked.
It was a great game between two competitive teams, the first-year coach added.
The win closed the gap between the two teams, with Monticello (123, 81 Division III) creeping to within half a game of ONeill (125, 91 Division III).
Villegas scored a career-high 23 to lead Monticello, one more than DeGroat, who added seven rebounds. Sammie McGinnis had eight points and eight rebounds and Chris Robinson had seven points and nine rebounds.
Phil Stewart contributed seven assists while Rich Fello (who, along with Devin Brust, saw considerable time as ONeill tried to rest DeGroat), snared six rebounds.
Dan Cronin (16), Elliot Meehan (14), and Aaron Smith (10) paced the Raiders.
A key stat: Monticello held a 40-27 rebounding advantage.
As always with Dick ONeill, his main concern was his players past and present. One of the coachs better cagers 1998 grad Jerome Butler wanted to talk about his future plans.
Call me collect, ONeills parting words were as Butler left the gym.