CRANFORD – It should come as no surprise that Cranford head baseball coach Dennis McCaffery is nearing another milestone.
He begins the second week of the 2018 season just two wins shy of 400 in this his 20th season at the helm of the Cougars.
Averaging 20 wins a season and in the mix for division, county, section and state championships has become the norm along the lines of Centennial Avenue.
McCaffery came along with best friend James Shriner – two of the most celebrated athletes to ever come out of Roselle Park – to guide Cranford baseball in 1996, 1997 and 1998. Shriner was the lead, with McCaffery his assistant.
Cranford won division titles all three years and in 1997 the Cougars also captured the Group 3 state championship for the first time. It was Cranford’s second state title and first since the Cougars won the initial Group 4 state championship game played on a field in 1971.
McCaffery – a 1987 Roselle Park graduate who helped lead the Panthers his junior and senior seasons to the Group 1 state championship game, with the Panthers winning it in 1987 – took over as head coach in 1999. His resume for 520 games – going into Cranford’s April 10 Watchung Division home contest against Union – is 398-122 (.765).
Cranford’s second game this week is at defending Watchung Division champion Governor Livingston Thursday at 4 p.m. and then the Cougars return home to face Hudson County power Memorial of West New York Saturday at 10 a.m.
Cranford also has a second game scheduled to be played Saturday – at Linden at 3 p.m.
“He gets more out of you than you think you have,” said Union head coach Angel Navarrete, a 2000 Cranford graduate who started for McCaffery during McCaffery’s first two seasons in charge in 1999 (junior year: 2B, DH, P) and 2000 (senior season: SS).
Navarrete also coached under McCaffery on the varsity level for three seasons from 2011-2013 after coaching middle school from 2006-2010.
“Playing for Dennis, wow, it was a great atmosphere,” Navarrete said. “He’s the best at motivating that I’ve ever been around. He could always find a way to pull a little extra out of you.”
Navarrete is now in his fifth season at the helm of the Farmers, which is his first stint as a head coach.
“Growing up in Cranford was amazing,” Navarrete said. “Dennis brought the community together around baseball is one way I can describe what he’s done.
“For the past 20 years his teams have stuck together. It’s all family, which may be the most important thing.
“He’s the best baseball coach I’ve been around, but he’s an even better person. He’s there for you for everything.
“He’s done it without a crazy amount of Division 1 guys and he gets his players to buy into his concept. Every game is important. Every practice is important.”
Kevin Feeley, who played for Shriner and McCaffery before graduating from Cranford in 1998, just completed his seventh season as the head boys’ basketball coach at Union. He went from being an assistant coach for McCaffery to taking over on the hardcourt at Union beginning with the 2011-2012 basketball season.
“Dennis has a very simple philosophy, which is not focusing on anything more than the task at hand,” Feeley said. “Every game, every practice is big. Whatever the next thing is, is the most important.
“What he does is a lot of repetition, the fundamental things – fielding ground balls, fly balls, putting the ball in play, making pitchers throw strikes – he gets his players to buy into what he’s doing.”
Feeley was with McCaffery for eight seasons from 2004-2011. Feeley, Brian Chapman and McCaffery were together for seven years – 2004-2010. Chapman is now in his eighth year as the head baseball coach at Millburn and has led the Millers to two of the last three Group 4 state championships.
“That’s what he taught me as a coach – for me to get my kids to buy into what I’m doing, what I’m teaching,” Feeley said. “Dennis is an extension of his coaches. One of the most amazing things he does is to allow you to do what you do well.
“He’s not a micro-manager. He’s willing to take risks and he also makes it enjoyable to coach with him.
“I’ve never seen anyone better with what he gets out of the kids after 1-5. Most teams have pretty good players from 1-5, but what he gets out of kids 6-9 and from say the No. 3 pitcher, those are the pieces that make the whole thing go.
“He takes the best athletes and puts them in the best spots to be successful. Nobody is better at it.”
When it was McCaffery, Chapman and Feeley – explains Feeley – it was Dennis focusing on the outfielders, Brian concentrating with the infielders, Feeley handling the pitchers, in addition to his scouting duties, and Dennis and Brian splitting the hitting chores.
McCaffery also scouted teams himself, whether it was a top-notch Group 4 school the Cougars were going to be playing or a lesser-known Group 1. He treated every opponent with the same amount of respect as far as preparing Cranford to play them.
“Dennis is extremely influential, there’s no better guy to be around for that,” Feeley said. “He showed me what leadership really is. With his enthusiasm he can coach any kind of team and he will be successful.”
In 2010, in McCaffery’s fourth try in a group state championship game as a head coach, Cranford defeated Ocean City 15-3 in five innings at Toms River North for the program’s third state title and second in Group 3.
It was the last game McCaffery, Chapman and Feeley were together for. Shriner was there as well.
“That was very satisfying, to win a state championship, which was the last thing on our list to accomplish together,” Feeley said.
That was the third year McCaffery guided Cranford to at least 26 wins, with the Cougars finishing 26-5. They also won the Union County Tournament that season – beating Westfield 6-5 after coming back from a 5-0 deficit in the final at Elizabeth – for the first time since 2007.
“By the time we had six to seven years in, the three of us knew what each other was thinking and going to do before what was going to take place, which made it very successful,” Feeley said.
Cranford’s 2013 team finished 25-1 (losing only at Westfield 2-1 in a regular season division game following a 17-0 start and a 25-game winning streak dating back to the 2012 state championship campaign) and was ranked No. 1 in the state at season’s end. Sparked by standout seniors Ryan Williamson and Chris Folinusz, that was the one year Cranford won every title in sight, including division, county, section, group semifinal and group final.
The Cougars have won North 2, Group 3 six times this decade, including the past two seasons.
This year’s squad is led by senior right hander Gordon Graceffo, who will continue playing in college at Villanova, and by junior right fielder James Shriner, ranked as one of the top outfielders in the state. Shriner is the son of James Shriner, the head coach from 1996-1998.
“With Dennis it’s more than baseball, it’s relationships with the kids and baseball feeds off that,” said Ryan Matlosz, a 1997 Cranford graduate who played on the 1997 Group 3 state championship team and who has been a varsity assistant coach for McCaffery since 2012. “Dennis takes great pride in that.”
Matlosz previously coached freshman and junior varsity baseball at Cranford from 2001-2011.
“Dennis still texts and calls guys he coached 10-15 years ago,” Matlosz said. “Baseball is a tool for him, especially with me, as far as learning life lessons such as accomplishing goals and problem-solving. Those are the kinds of things that don’t show up in the box score.”
THOSE WHO COACHED AND/OR PLAYED FOR
DENNIS McCAFFERY THAT ARE NOW
HEAD COACHES ELSEWHERE:
BRIAN CHAPMAN, Union Catholic class of 1987 and Cranford resident:
Chapman is in his eighth season as the head baseball coach at Millburn.
Chapman coached with McCaffery for 12 seasons from 1999-2010.
KEVIN FEELEY, Cranford class of 1998:
Feeley just finished his seventh season as the head boys’ basketball coach at Union.
Feeley coached with McCaffery for eight seasons from 2004-2011.
BRIAN WEINGART, Cranford class of 1998:
Weingart is in his second season as the head baseball coach at Mendham.
Weingart coached with McCaffery, including the 2010 and 2012 seasons, both years the Cougars won the Group 3 state championship.
ANGEL NAVARRETE, Cranford class of 2000:
Navarrete is in his fifth season at the head baseball coach at Union.
Navarrete coached with McCaffery for three seasons from 2011-2013.
CHRIS DRECHSEL, Cranford Class of 2005:
Drechsel is preparing for his third season as the head football coach at Millburn.
DENNIS McCAFFERY’S RECORD AS
CRANFORD HEAD BASEBALL COACH:
1999: (28-3) – UCT; North 2, Group 3 champs
2000: (25-6) – UCT; North 2, Group 3 champs; reached G3 final
2001: (20-9) – UCT champs; North 2, Group 3 finalists
2003: (19-8) – UCT; North 2, Group 3 champs; reached G3 final
2005: (23-6) – Central Jersey, Group 2 champs
2006: (21-6) – North 2, Group 3 finalists
2007: (26-5) – UCT; North 2, Group 3 champs; reached G3 final
2010: (26-5) – UCT; North 2, Group 3; Group 3 state champs
2011: (20-5) – UCT champs
2012: (22-4) – North 2, Group 3; Group 3 state champs
2013: (25-1) – UCT; North 2, Group 3; Group 3 state champs
2014: (17-7) – North 2, Group 3 champs
2015: (21-5) – UCT champs
2016: (18-11) – North 2, Group 3 champs
2017: (21-8) – North 2, Group 3 champs; reached G3 final
2018: (1-1 so far)
Total: 398-122 (.765)
RECORD IN UNION COUNTY TOURNAMENT
CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES (9-1):
WINS: 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2015.
RECORD IN SECTIONAL FINALS (11-3):
WINS (all in North 2, Group 3, except for 2005 in Central Jersey, Group 2):
1999, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017.
LOSSES: 2001, 2006 (extras), 2015 (extras).
RECORD IN GROUP SEMIFINALS (7-4)
Group 3 – 7-3. Group 2 – 0-1.:
WINS: 2000, 2003, 2007, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2017.
LOSSES: 1999, 2005 (Group 2), 2014 (extras), 2016.
RECORD IN GROUP FINALS (3-4, all in Group 3):
WINS: 2010, 2012, 2013.
LOSSES: 2000, 2003, 2007, 2017 (extras).
YEARS QUALIFIED FOR STATES – ALL OF FIRST 19.
RECORD IN STATES: 59-16 (.787).
* Cranford has won at least one state tournament game in each of the past 13 seasons (2005-2017).
* The only years that Cranford did not win a state tournament game since 1999 are 2002 and 2004.
* Cranford has won North 2, Group 3 the past two seasons and six of the first eight seasons this decade: 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017.
MOUNTAIN VALLEY CONFERENCE division titles (7):
1999, 2000, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009.
UNION COUNTY CONFERENCE division titles (5):
2010 (Mountain), 2011 (Watchung), 2012 (Watchung), 2013 (Watchung),
2015 (co-champs of Watchung with Gov. Livingston).
STATE TOURNAMENT SEASONS: (19)
WINNING SEASONS: (18)
DIVISION WINNING SEASONS: (12)
SECTIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP SEASONS: (11)
UNION COUNTY TOURNAMENT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASONS: (9)
WINNING THE GROUP SEMIFINAL SEASONS: (7)
WINNING THE GROUP FINAL SEASONS: (3)