on June 19, 2019 6:57 AM
Nine years ago, when there was an opening for a head baseball coach at St. Mary High School in Rutherford, athletic director Matt Stone sought the right man for the job.
Naturally, prior head coaching experience at the varsity level would be preferred.
As it turned out, the perfect man for St. Mary didn’t have a single pitch worth of varsity know-how.
Dennis Hulse, a three-sport star in football, basketball and baseball for the Gaels, was one of the candidates. At the time, Hulse had been a New York City police officer for 10 years.
“When I was hired as the head basketball coach here in 1997 by Frank Venezia, I didn’t have any coaching experience either,” Stone recalled.
“Dennis was on the first team I coached at St. Mary. I knew his experiences as a police officer were unlike those he would see on a baseball field. I remember people asking me how could I hire somebody without head coaching experience. The only way to get coaching experience is to do it.”
Stone paid it forward and hired Hulse anyway.
“It was a no-brainer,” Stone recalled last week. “He didn’t have coaching experience, but he had St. Mary experience. I knew Dennis was going to care more about our baseball program than anyone else I could find.”
Hulse pressed all the right buttons on a St. Mary team that won the Non-Public B title this spring. He’s been selected as the NJ.com Baseball Coach of the Year for 2019.
The 4-3 win over 19-time group champion Gloucester Catholic on June 6 at Hamilton Township’s Bob DeMeo Field meant Hulse had come full circle. He won a state championship as a senior at St. Mary in 1998.
“Being such a small school, it was such a huge deal for us,” Hulse said. “We had 75 students on the same bus with the team and teachers and it wasn’t a short ride. But after a couple of minutes, the kids settled down. I looked at my phone and I had 495 texts and 30 missed calls from family, friends and St. Mary alumni. I have to admit, I shed a little tear when I saw that.”
Hulse celebrated the state title with a head-first dive into home, making him the dirtiest coach to win an NJSIAA championship this season.
“I still have the scrapes and bruises from it,” Hulse said. “Our kids would huddle up after a big win and I would break into the huddle and scream. After the Gill St. Bernard’s game (in the Non-Public North A final) I dove into the pile. It gets the kids excited.”
Hulse serves as the Dean of Discipline at St. Mary. It almost seems natural his team would play with restraint and self-control.
“Dennis faces both his jobs with a sense of fairness and will always do the right thing for the kids,” Stone said. “Being the Dean of Discipline means he deals with a lot of negatives. Dennis approaches things with a positive attitude and sees an opportunity for a kid to learn from a mistake instead of a lockdown punishment.”
St. Mary finished with a 21-9 record and was ranked No. 17 in the final NJ.com Baseball Top 20 of the season.
“I think we are a team that does the little things well,” said Hulse, a Felician University grad. “We like to have fun in practice. I consider myself more of a player’s coach than a disciplinarian.”
St. Mary entered the playoffs on a three-game losing streak, during which it was outscored 27-14.
“In one of those losses we played all freshmen and in another we played all JV,” Hulse said. “I know it looks like we weren’t playing well but we were trying to get some young guys playing time. It really didn’t reflect how good a team we had.
“We don’t have a lot of pitching, but the pitchers we had threw a lot of innings. We didn’t want to get anyone hurt. I knew we were much better than what people saw from the outside.”
St. Mary was well-prepared for a playoff run. Hulse put together a challenging schedule that featured powerhouse programs like (Group 4 champion) Ridgewood, (Group 2 champion) Pascack Hills, Don Bosco Prep, Bergen County Tournament champion St. Joseph (Mont.) and Bergen Catholic. It also played Group 1 champion Emerson Boro during the regular season.
“I’ve never cared about our record as long I was doing everything I could during the season to prepare our kids for the state tournament,” Hulse said.
“We’ve had a similar schedule in other years, just not the same luck in the state tournament.”
In the playoffs, St. Mary showed its true colors. The Gaels opened with an 8-0 win over Morristown-Beard and then a 12-2 victory over defending sectional champion DePaul. It then scratched out a 2-1 win over Gill St. Bernard’s.
“One of the big differences about this team than with others we had was they jumped out to leads,” Hulse said. “In other years, we found ourselves behind early in games.”
In the state final, St. Mary sped to a 4-1 lead over Gloucester Catholic.
Gloucester Catholic chipped away and closed to within 4-3, but senior right-hander Kenny Quijano, who finished with 12 strikeouts, nine of them called, sealed the deal for St. Mary.
“He (Quijano) is an absolute thoroughbred,” Hulse said. “He was an absolute horse. He’s made more big starts over the last three or four years than anyone in the state.
“He was prepared for the state final and he certainly wasn’t nervous.
“Kenny gets a lot of the credit for the win in the state final and he deserves it,” Hulse said. “But it was a true team win, from getting bunts down to getting key outs in big situations.”