Located in northern New Jersey and essentially a suburb of New York City, Don Bosco Preparatory High School is often viewed as an athletic behemoth.
Don Bosco Prep’s football team won its sixth straight New Jersey state championship last fall and was crowned the USA Today national champion for the second time in the last three years. Its boys’ basketball program usually competes at an elite level.
And over at least the past five years – and despite an almost annual turnover at the head coaching position – the Ironmen baseball program has likewise been elevated to a level of national prominence.
Don Bosco Prep debuted at No. 14 in the Perfect Game Preseason National High School Rankings and has since climbed to No. 13. Today it debuts in the No. 2 spot in the first PG Northeast Region Rankings, trailing only New York City George Washington (No. 10 nationally).
“It’s a program very rich in tradition,” Don Bosco Prep Athletics Director Brian McAleer said over the telephone earlier this week. “(Early season) rankings are one thing, but our young men have a tendency to keep our eye on the prize, so to speak; they realize they have a bulls-eye on their back and they realize they’ve got to work hard, and they’ve been working hard in the offseason.”
Don Bosco Prep is a member of New Jersey’s Big North Conference and competes for league, county and state championships. The Ironmen finished 25-1 last season and won the Bergen County championship, and the 2008 team finished first in one set of national rankings after completing a 33-0 season.
Mike Rooney, who for the past 10 years served as the pitching coach at Rockland Community College in Suffern, N.Y., was named the head coach of the Ironmen in late October. Rooney became the fifth head coach since 2007 at the school, following Leon Matthews, Greg Butler, former big-league right-hander Mike Stanton and Mark DeMenna.
“I have heard the comments, to be honest, that it’s a revolving door, but I really think it’s a mischaracterization,” Rooney told The Bergen (N.J.) Record the day his hiring was announced. “I thought Butler left for positive reasons and Mike Stanton left because he moved back to Texas. Naturally, I had questions going in, just like anybody … but I think there is a nice comfort level and I don’t really hesitate to jump in.”
Perfect Game wasn’t able to reach Rooney for comment for this article.
McAleer is extremely proud of the stellar accomplishments of Don Bosco Prep’s athletic programs but is just as proud of the school’s academic prowess.
“In the grand scheme of things I think it’s unfortunate that the people look at Don Bosco and they see the sports and they think that all we do is develop athletes,” McAleer said. “In reality, we can match up our academic accolades with anyone in the state; we’re up there with our SAT scores and with our academic honors that we receive every year from the state of New Jersey.
“The reality of it is in America, sports sells newspapers, sports sells magazines, and we’ve got make sure were upholding our end of the bargain and not worry about what the perception is outside of our campus.”
The 2012 Ironmen baseball team is loaded with top prospects that also double as top scholar-athletes. Led by the return of seven seniors, the squad will take the field for a series of eight scrimmage games between March 12 and March 27 before kicking off the regular season at Georgetown Prep on March 31.
The talent starts with a pair of senior right-handers in Tom Burns (uncommitted) and Michael Gomez (U. of Maryland-Baltimore County). Burns was 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA and 62 strikeouts and Gomez was 7-0 with a 2.70 ERA and 45 Ks during their junior seasons.
The top returning position players include center fielder Michael Mecca (Villanova), shortstop George Iskendarian (South Carolina), first baseman Matt Dacey (Michigan), third baseman Grant Van Orden (West Point Academy) and right fielder Joe Purritano (Dartmouth).
All five position players hit better than .300 last season with Dacey leading the way at .461 – to go with eight home runs and 33 RBI. All seven of those seniors are New Jersey boys ranked by Perfect Game as top-500 prospects in the class of 2012 and all seven are veterans of numerous Perfect Game events. Dacey and Purritano attended last year’s prestigious Perfect Game National Showcase at City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, Fla.
“We’re returning a great group of seniors who will provide leadership for the underclassmen and we’re looking to have a very productive season,” McAleer said.
Another productive season would be nothing new for an athletic team at Don Bosco Prep. Although he will be new to the school this spring, Rooney seems to have a firm grasp of what is needed to succeed.
“I think you start with the concept that it’s a program, not a team,” Rooney told The Record. “You make sure there is quality instruction at the early levels and you make sure you have the best possible young men representing the program.
“It’s been heading in the right direction for multiple years now and you just want to keep building on it.”
McAleer told Perfect Game that it starts with one basic school-wide philosophy.
“What we do here and what we instill in the young men as a motto for our school is ‘Do the ordinary things extra-ordinary,’” McAleer said. “Whether that’s baseball or whether that’s the arts, we want to make sure that we provide our young men with the means to succeed. Their parents are the primary educators but the reality is that a lot of them spend more time at Don Bosco than they do at their own homes.
“They look at this place as a home away from home, and we provide them with the training and the proper facilities to allow them to get better.”
New York George Washington and Don Bosco Prep are the only two schools from a “northern” state ranked in PG’s national top-30. The cooler climate could be looked upon as a hindrance but McAleer thinks the Don Bosco players actually benefit from it.
“It’s another challenge because you’re restricted as far as the training goes,” he said. “(But the success we’ve had) is a reflection on our young men, it’s a reflection on the school and what we do here. Sure, we’ve got to inside and the kids have to go work out in indoor facilities and you don’t have the luxury of being outside 12 months a year. But it makes it them better because they work through adversity and they get through what they need to get through.
“That’s what we ask of our young men; go out and do the best you can everyday and get better, and make sure you’re doing your job.”
Successful, national championship-caliber athletic programs like those in baseball and football have put Don Bosco Prep firmly in the nation’s direct gaze. And there are responsibilities that go with that.
“Our sports are looked at here as a privilege,” McAleer said. “You have to take care of your (academic) responsibility from 7:25 in the morning until 1:40 in the afternoon, and your primary responsibility as a 14 to 18 year old young man is to be a student. That’s what we instill in our young men.
“People have this notion about Don Bosco Prep, but what we can control is what takes place within the confines of our campus and we do a heck of a job educating our young men.”