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Kathy Matthews Retires After Legendary Career as Girls Basketball Coach at Union Catholic

When Kathy Matthews walked to the stage at the Prudential Center on Monday night, she received a huge ovation from the packed crowd, which included several former players, friends, family, coaches on her staff, and Union Catholic administrators.

Matthews, who carved out a legendary career as the girls basketball coach at Union Catholic for the last 46 years, was being honored for all of her accomplishments with a special recognition award at The Basketball Reunion in Newark.

It was a fitting tribute for Matthews, who recently announced her retirement from coaching after a remarkable run with the Vikings.   

A towering presence in high school girls basketball in New Jersey since she began her coaching career at Union Catholic in 1977, Matthews built Union Catholic into a perennial powerhouse during her Hall of Fame career.

During an illustrious career that spanned six decades, Coach Matthews led the Vikings to 13 Conference titles, eight Union County titles, five sectional titles, three state championships, and her 1989 team advanced to the first ever Tournament of Champions final, and finished as the No. 2 ranked team in New Jersey.

In her final season this past winter, Matthews reached a huge milestone when she won her 750th game, which makes her the third winningest girls basketball coach in N.J. history.   

"Retirement was inevitable,'' said Matthews. "Running a program is a big commitment, so now it's time to sit back and relax, reflect, and do the things I haven't had time for.''

Matthews said there are so many people to thank for helping her during her coaching journey at UC. 

"There are so many individuals responsible for the success of this program,'' said Matthews. "I have to thank every player that I have coached, every coach that has coached with me, and the administration and athletic directors who have supported the program and my philosophies through the years. I also want to thank the parents of the student/athletes who have played in this program through the decades.''

Matthews said her legacy shouldn't just be about the titles and the victories.

"I don't want my legacy to be just about the numbers and the championships,'' said Matthews. "I want it to be about how the program developed the student, the athlete, the teammate, and fostered team unity. It's about seeing former players being successful in their lives, fostering life skills through sports, and seeing my players work hard and have a passion for what they are doing. The fact that my former players see me as being instrumental in their growth and development is the ultimate compliment that I could ever receive as a coach.''

Cherie Pizzano, one of the many players Matthews was referring to, was in attendance on Monday night.

Pizzano (Class of 1989) said Matthews pushed her to be the best she could be, and made a lasting impact on her life.  

"Coach Matthews is a master of getting her players to reach their full potential,'' said Pizzano, who recently retired as Linden's bowling coach after a Hall of Fame career. "She guided me as a student athlete to become a disciplined and hard-working individual. She made a huge difference and a lasting impact on my life because she taught me that dedication and passion are essential skills. Coach also taught us as young women how to overcome adversity and learn to be resilient.  Coach has always been there for me from my transfer from colleges, through my divorce and my decision to retire from coaching. She listens and gives great advice without judgment.  She has become a great friend and a person I can trust. Her legacy is not just in her amazing record, but that she played a critical role in a crucial time as she mentored us on our paths to adulthood.''

"There are so many memories I cherish while playing for Coach Matthews at Union Catholic,'' said Pizzano. "One memory that I remember is after losing the TOC 1989, Coach told me, "Kid you left everything you had out on that floor, you have nothing to be upset about!''  That will forever stay with me. Coach was my sounding board during my coaching career.  I utilized all her principles and I would always refer in my head to "what would Coach do?'' I was blessed to play for the greatest basketball coach with the greatest players in N.J. history!''

What are some of the greatest memories for Matthews during her career?

"I will always remember all of the first championships-the first  conference, the first county, the first sectional title, the first state championship, and playing in the inaugural Tournament of Champions.''

Matthews said the reaction after her 750th victory is something she will never forget.    

"The outpouring of congratulations I received after my 750th win was very touching as coaches, former players, former students, administrators and parents reached out to me,'' said Matthews.

Matthews, a 1971 graduate of John F. Kennedy High School in Iselin and a graduate of Kean University, has collected several awards for her coaching excellence.

She was honored as Coach of the Year by the Union County Coaches Association in 1981, 1986, 1988, 1992, 1998, 2001, and 2005, and has received coaching awards from the NJSIAA, the Daily News, the National Federation Interscholastic Coaches Association, and The Star-Ledger.

Matthews is also a member of the Woodbridge Township Hall of Fame, the Union Catholic Hall of Fame, the Kean University Hall of Fame, and the NJSIAA Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

Matthews has coached a number of all-conference, all-county and all state players, and several of her players have been named Conference Player of the Year, and many of her teams have been named Union County Team of the Year. Twenty three of her players have received athletic scholarships to play at the Division 1 and Division 2 level.

Among the notable players that Matthews has coached at UC are Kris Kirchner, Kris Durham, Cheryl Cop Hart, and Tia Manhardt DiTullio.   

Kirchner (Class of 1977) was First Team All-State, the Gatorade National Basketball Player of the Year, and she made the 1980 U.S. Olympic team 

Durham (Class of 1987) was First Team All-State, First Team Parade, a Converse All-American, the N.J. Gatorade Player of the Year in 1987, and was selected to The Star Ledger's All-Century Team.

Hart (Class of 1989) was also an All-State player, had a 106-6 during her career at UC, and she played on four conference, four county, three sectional, and three state championship teams. 

Durham, the all-time leading scorer in UC history with 2,570  points, said Matthews left an indelible mark on her.   

"I could spend hours talking about all of the ways Coach Matthews impacted me and my career as a player and as a person,'' said Durham, who retired as lieutenant from the Franklin Township Police Department last year. "Her natural abilities as a teacher of the game, specifically the teaching of individual skill techniques at the fundamental level was a natural gift of hers that has never been duplicated by any coach I've ever played for in my career. A great example of this is my first shooting session with her at UC.  I thought at that time that I had a pretty good jump shot. After a few minutes of her watching my form, she told me my footwork was basically backwards and we needed to start over.  She told me if I was committed to changing to her technique and dedicated to putting in the hours upon hours of hard work, I would become a great shooter instead of a good shooter, and the higher level of competition I played in was where the difference would show.  So I did, and bugged her constantly to open the gym for me and work with me for probably hundreds or thousands of hours. Never once did she say no or she was busy doing something else, she was committed to helping me become the player she knew I could become, and everything she said she was right.  Even to this day I occasionally go to the park and shoot around for fun, and when I miss I know exactly why, I hear her in my head "right foot in front, shoulders squared to the basket, use your legs and step into the shot, follow through, let the ball roll off your fingers." I've also passed on to other young players what she taught me, always giving credit to the master of teaching how to shoot a jump shot.

"I also learned from her what it meant to be in a leadership role on the team and what the importance of that really meant,'' said Durham. "She taught me that being a successful leader meant leading by example, doing things the right way, doing the work and preparation to be successful. It also meant being selfless, supportive, encouraging, and knowing that no one person was more important than the team. I tried to become the leader that she had been for me, and have carried these lessons throughout my career as a police officer and my life as well.''

Durham, who now lives in Lakewood Ranch, Florida, said Matthews is the reason she came to Union Catholic. 

"My father (Jim) and a close family friend, who was also my coach at the time (Bob Reilly), were actively searching for a coach who was the best fit for me at the high school level. They heard great things about Coach Matthews, so my father, Bob and I (I was in 6th or 7th grade at the time) went to see a UC game, which I believe was at the Dunn Center in Elizabeth. Within a couple of minutes after tip off, Coach Matthews called a time out and ripped into her team, and sent them back onto the court before the timeout was even over. At that moment my father and Bob looked at each other and said she is the one, and the rest is history. The ironic thing about it was that Coach Matthews was not a screamer type of coaching style. She only ever yelled at us as players when it was necessary for things such as a lack of effort or focus, which we brought entirely on ourselves and deserved.''

Hart said Matthews was always prepared. 

"Coach always had us prepared for anything,'' said Hart. "When I say prepared, we could for sure recall whatever was done in live action back to practice. She had scouting reports ready for big games, we brought in guys to practice against to make us better, and we knew the rules for the offenses and defenses and the press. If we needed a steal and a basket we were experts at executing the 2-2-1 press!''  

Hart has known Matthews since she was nine years old.

"I knew Coach from the Kean College basketball camp that I started attending when I was nine years old,'' said Hart. I also went to the UC games in grammar school and thought I could see myself there.''

Best way to describe Matthews?  

"I would call her an architect,'' said Hart. "She is the architect of girls basketball at UC. She weaved her plans and designs over the 46 years -  team after team and year after year. She gave each team and player the same energy and relayed the necessary knowledge. Each year a different design was crafted based on the tools she had to work with. She was always level headed, yet not afraid to do the tough things when needed,'' said Hart. "On occasion she got tough and threw the team out of the gym when necessary! Or she'd give us a day off to recover. My teammates and I recall these times with candor and fun in retrospect.''

DiTullio (Class of 1991) said Matthews always got the most out of her players. 

"Coach Matthews has a gift of bringing out the best in you on or off the court,'' said DiTullio. "She's clear-headed and focused, goal oriented, and determined. She exudes a calm and steady confidence that transfers to her team, much like Stanford Head Coach Tara VanDerveer, who Coach Matthews emulates. Coach Mathews not only teaches the games of X's and O's, but what it takes to be successful in life: Preparation, dedication, discipline, determination, good sportsmanship, and learning from our mistakes. She truly cares for her players, she is a life coach," who has imparted lifetime qualities and skills that live on in my life!''

"Coach Matthews absolutely influenced my decision to attend UC,'' said DiTullio. "Her winning record speaks for itself. I wanted to be part of a winning tradition and culture, and I knew I would be coached by the best staff in the state of N.J. led by Coach Matthews. My sister Mari (UC grad) brought me to watch a game when I was in 8th grade. I sat in the stands and was in awe of Kris Durham, and I liked how Coach Mathews talked to her players. I tried to picture myself on the court and had a good feeling it was the right fit for me. I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to play for such an amazing coach and be part of such a successful program. When I think of Coach Matthews, I think N.J. basketball legend. I also think of her as a mentor and now a friend.'' 

"Coach Matthews gave it her all,'' said DiTullio. "She coached with passion and she loved the game. She poured her heart and soul into every aspect of the game. Her game plans were meticulous. She knew the opponent inside and out and she coached her team until she felt we were fully prepared. She has an eye for detail and that showed in how she coached. We watched and broke down countless hours of film as a team and individually to prepare. I can only imagine how much time Coach Matthews put into preparing when we weren't with her. Many people will see what Coach has accomplished through her many milestones and achievements. What I will remember about Coach is that her office door was always open. If you needed to talk to her she was always available and went out of her way to help her players. She cared about her players like we were her own kids. She knew me so well and would pull me aside in practice if I was having a bad day and lift me up. Coach is genuine. She cares about us as people. She brings out the best in her players, and wants to see them succeed in life. That's what I'll remember the most.''

Jackie Huber Dyer (Class of 2001) had a very successful run as head girls basketball coach at Cranford before joining the coaching staff at UC in 2000.

"All that I have learned about basketball and being a successful coach, I have learned from my time at Union Catholic,'' said Dyer.  "As a player, the true meaning of "offense wins games, defense wins championships" was exemplified throughout my four years there under Coach Matthews.  I will always remember winning the Union County Tournament in 2001 as a senior while on the court with my younger sister Lauren and former teammate, now fellow coach at UC, Stephanie Green.  That season and that final game is a memory that will stay with me forever.  Throughout my 13 years as the Girls Varsity Basketball Coach at Cranford High School, I credit how I conducted practices, taught and led all of my teams to what I learned from Coach Matthews. Her success is something I have always admired and have worked hard to attain myself. Coach Matthews is Union Catholic girls basketball, and her legacy, her championships and her incredible 750 wins is something that will live on. Days come and go, but banners stay forever.'' Dr. Karen Piasecki, an Associate Principal at Union Catholic, played on numerous state and county championship teams under Coach Matthews before graduating in 1988, and served as an assistant with Matthews since 1992. Dr. Piasecki has a strong family connection with Matthews.  

"I graduated in 1988, so I played in the girls basketball program from 1984-88,'' said Dr. Piasecki. My sister, Joellen '84, played in the program for four years, so my family's connection with Coach Matthews goes back to 1981. Based on all of those years I think Kathy's legacy will be remembered as the face of the UC Girls Basketball program. She has left a mark on UC and Girls Basketball throughout the State of New Jersey.

"Kathy is a fierce competitor, who always strives for excellence and expects the same from her players and coaches,'' said Dr. Piasecki.  "She is a true teacher of the game of basketball. Kathy has always been a supporter of her student athletes.  She leads by example and expects the best of those around her. I will always remember sitting on the bench for the past 30 years with Kathy and Bruce Douglas, great coaches and even better people.''

What were Dr. Piasecki's greatest memories with Matthews?

"Winning back-to-back state championships as a player in 1987 and 1988. The hard work, long hours and dedication of the coaching staff and the players, resulted in the ultimate success on the court.''

What will Dr. Piasecki miss the most about coaching with Matthews?

"I will miss sitting on the bench and working during practice, seeing the day in and day out of Kathy's basketball passion. She is fully engaged, energized and a fierce competitor. It's obvious to all how much she loves the game.''

Dr. Piasecki said that Matthews always maintained a strong connection with her players.   

"Each and every season, former players come back to visit,'' said Dr. Piasecki.    "This was most evident when so many attended her 700th victory game.  She is a point of connection for UC and the student athletes who played for Coach Matthews.''

Bruce Douglas, an assistant under Matthews since 1980, said teaching life lessons and adaptability were two of the greatest strengths that Matthews possessed.    

"I feel the lessons about being dedicated and working hard that were learned by her players, which went beyond basketball, is the most important thing that Kathy left behind,'' said Douglas. "And I think her ability to adapt to the changes in the game from using the boys ball, to the addition of the 3-point line, and the evolution of the game itself and having to adapt to that,'' said Douglas. "She always adapted her teams to the talent level she had, and I think she did that better than anyone else. Also, she wasn't sold on just doing one thing in order to be successful, not just from season to season, but on a game to game basis.''

How does Douglas think Matthews should be regarded?    

"Kathy is one of the pioneers of girls basketball in this state,'' said Douglas. "When you think about coaches who have raised the level of play in girls basketball in New Jersey, Kathy is in that conversation. And that is how I feel she should be thought of.''

UC administrators and colleagues also weighed in with their thoughts about Matthews.  

UC Principal Sister Percylee Hart, RSM, said Matthews was a role model and a natural leader.

"I met Kathy when the school's merged at UC (1980), and I saw her leadership beyond coaching as a department chair and disciplinarian, and she was always such a great role model and a mentor for our students,'' said Sister Percylee. "What Kathy brought to her career at UC was her consistency, and her perseverance over the years. She was a mover, a shaker and a difference maker in girls basketball in New Jersey. She impacted so many lives and was such a great ambassador for Union Catholic, and I'm thankful for all she had done for the school. She will be missed.'' 

Dr. Jim Reagan Jr., an Assistant Principal and the head boys basketball coach at Union Catholic said UC is fortunate to have had Matthews lead the program.  

"How lucky are we at Union Catholic to have had Kathy

 Matthews for the last 40 plus years as a role model, as a mentor, as coach and as a friend,'' said Dr. Reagan. "Kathy is so much more than just basketball, so much more than just wins and losses, and she had a lot of wins. I remember in my youth the girls team at Union Catholic never lost. The run they had was beyond impressive. My knowledge of basketball was winning at Union Catholic, and Kathy was the leader of that, and she continued to teach, and inspire, and always did things the right way. "Working with Kathy in Student Affairs for the last 20 years, we made a great team, and I'm very happy for her that she can now enjoy retirement. Her legacy will continue forever.''                

Union Catholic Athletic Director Dave Luciano said Matthews is one of a kind.

"Kathy's legendary career speaks for itself,'' said Luciano. "What she's been able to accomplish and the longevity of her career and the success she has had, and the lives she's affected over the years is just amazing. When you see the relationships she still has with her former players that she coached decades ago, and their families and the parents that still come around, it says a lot about the program she created here and the legacy that she will leave. We go way back to when I was a student here in the 1990's, and Kathy was always very supportive and visible in the building. She wasn't just a basketball coach. And then to be able to work with her for the last two decades, and work with her in athletics the last four years has been an absolute pleasure working with her.''