Rendzio, Wood-Ridge’s highly successful boys basketball coach, has been the Blue Devils softball coach since last May when Jill Clementi was arrested and charged with one count of sexual assault and one count of endangering the welfare of a child on allegations she had a sexual relationship with a student.
Clementi’s presence still hovers over the Blue Devils program, but the program has also sought to turn the page, and who better to lead them forward then Rendzio?
“You want to keep the focus away from the outside and this is our focus,” said Rendzio, holding up a softball after his team’s 7-2 loss Saturday to Park Ridge in the Donna Ricker Tournament. “Let’s play ball. We had some good seniors last year and we rallied around them, and this year we have a good bunch, too.”
Playing without two injured starters, the Blue Devils delighted their home crowd by taking a 2-0 lead in the first inning. But the Owls took advantage of mental errors by the Blue Devils and the offense was suffocated by Park Ridge pitcher Emily Kline, who allowed just two hits.
“What can we do?” Rendzio said with a smile. “Just try to get better every day.”
There weren’t many smiles in Wood-Ridge last May when Clementi was arrested. She was immediately removed from her post at Wood-Ridge and her teaching position at Immaculate Heart Academy.
“It was very uncomfortable, because she is a friend of mine, and a good friend,” said Rendzio on Saturday. “I don’t know what situation occurred and I’m not judging anything. It was hard, because you are torn because you are seeing a good friend … and [then] you have to step into her shoes.”
Remarkably, Rendzio held things together. The Blue Devils posted a winning record under him and surprised many by reaching the North 1, Group 1 semifinals.
“It was a little awkward,” said Rendzio, “but the kids just rallied around each other.”
“Rock took over and it was like nothing happened,” said Nicole Fleck, who was a senior at Wood-Ridge last year. “He goes from being a dad to basketball coach, and sometimes he would have to come late to practice, but once that happened, he started to come every day and make sure he was with us.”
Like many in Wood-Ridge, Fleck is still in shock by the allegations levied against Clementi, who led the Blue Devils to the Group 1 final in 2010. She said she has reached out to her former coach and stayed in touch.
“I have nothing against her,” said Fleck. “I don’t know what happened.”
According to the Bergen County Prosecutors Office, Clementi pleaded not guilty to the charges. A message was left with her attorney on Friday and not returned.
First-year Wood-Ridge athletic director Jason Cata also politely declined to comment, saying he was very happy with the Blue Devils coaching staff now.
Rendzio noted that he only has four holdovers from last year’s team, so a lot of his team didn’t know Clementi. He said he was happy to be the head coach even if it was not his original plan.
“I just felt like the opportunity to work with these kids … it’s the best,” said Rendzio. “I get blessed with basketball, it seems like every year is better than the next. Here, I am working with two good friends as my assistants, the kids want to get better, we all come, we work and we joke around.”
Park Ridge demonstrated the style of play the Blue Devils and Rendzio would like to emulate. Rendzio’s basketball teams thrive on pressure and three-point shots, which, when put in softball terms, means playing solid defense and putting the bat on the ball.
“Give them credit, they pitched well and put pressure on us and that’s what good teams do,” Rendzio said of Park Ridge. “Saddle Brook is that way, Immaculate Conception is that way. We want to try to do that too, put pressure on the other teams and make them make mistakes. It’s a lot like hoops and I try to approach it with the same team mentality, we are one program and we are together.”