Drejaj will continue defensive theme as he is promoted to head boys’ basketball coach at Linden

PHOTOS COURTESY OF ANTHONY DREJAJ – Anthony Drejaj was hired as the new head boys’ basketball coach at Linden.
Anthony Drejaj – at right – was part of 3 state championship teams at Linden as a valued assistant coach.

Similar to drawing up a man-to-man defense to stifle another worthy adversary, becoming a head basketball coach for the first time could not have worked out any better for Anthony Drejaj.
After acquiring the experience and learning the ropes under the guidance of Phil Colicchio – who left Linden after 21 years to become the head coach at his alma mater Elizabeth – Drejaj was the natural choice to succeed Colicchio, the person Linden’s gymnasium is named after.
Drejaj, 35, is not seeking to have a gym named after him, but he does have several things in mind for the start of his head coaching career.
“My team is going to know that we will make it the hardest possible night for any opponent that comes to our gym,” said Drejaj, who served as an assistant coach at Linden under Colicchio for the past nine years.
Drejaj, a 2002 Seton Hall Prep graduate who went on to play collegiately at St. Louis University, was formally approved by the Linden Board of Education last Tuesday.
“I want to walk my own path, wear my own shoes, make my own career,” said Drejaj, who was on Linden’s staff for the last three (2014, 2016, 2017) of its six state championships, which all came under Colicchio’s guidance.
“I was a defensive guy and always learned that defense wins championships. Offense comes and goes, that is the most inconsistent thing in the game.
“You can travel everywhere with defense. That will definitely be the staple of my program.
“We will pride ourselves on being the hardest defensive team in the state of New Jersey if not the country.”
Drejaj is from the Bronx and grew up in Orange and West Orange.
“We moved to West Orange my junior year (in high school),” Drejaj said.
Drejaj said there was no real timetable to want to make the progression from assistant to head coach.
“The further you get along into a coaching career you do start to think about it,” Drejaj said. “Although I didn’t apply anywhere (in recent years) I would have been open to looking at something similar to Linden if the opportunity was there.”
Instead, it worked out that Drejaj continues to be right where he still wants to be. The right place at the right time? Yes.
Here he explains: “I always wanted to take over at Linden. For my personal goal it wound up being exactly how I wanted it.
“In the next year or two I might have sought going after a head coaching job. When Linden opened up I knew I was definitely going after it.
“I always wanted to get into coaching, but didn’t have a real time frame to become a head coach. I was fortunate enough to land the biggest public school assistant job in the state and was thrown into the fire right away.”
Drejaj has now taught at Linden for going on more than five years.
“I’ve built many relationships, including the administration, the fans and the people in town,” Drejaj said. “I’m so comfortable here.
“A lot of people reached out to me and congratulated me and wished me luck. Our fans are very proud of our sports teams here.”
Drejaj, now a resident of West Caldwell, said he does not want to disclose the names of any coaching staff members until they become official.
When asked what his specific roles were when he was an assistant at Linden, this is what he had to say: “when I first got there I was not as talkative on the floor as I became.
“My first year was a feeling around period for me. I remember Phil saying to me, ‘the whole team has to hear you,’ when I was trying to make a point.
“The second year was better and by the time the third year came around I was way more natural with my instruction.
“Myself, Phil and (fellow varsity assistant coach) Marty Luc were on the floor doing a ton of instruction. Phil gave the platform.
“As far as scouting, Phil relied on us for that. We could sit there and watch tape for two hours. That’s also (the assistants) what we did.”
To play for Bob Farrell and then coach under Phil Colicchio, a high school basketball education really doesn’t get much better than that. Farrell, now retired from coaching, and Colicchio are at the top of their profession.
“From Phil, what I learned most was how to try to get the most out of all of our players no matter what their skill level was,” Drejaj said. “Phil is great at coaching them up and making them better than they are and getting more than 100 percent from them on the floor.
“That was a big part of our success at Linden. We didn’t have the best talent, but we had 10, 12, 15 guys working as hard as they could. That’s hard to beat.”
Drejaj was a key three-year varsity player for Farrell. His first year on varsity – his sophomore season of 1999-2000 – the Pirates captured the Essex County Tournament championship and then won the Non-Public A state championship for the fifth consecutive year.
“Playing for Coach Farrell was a tremendous experience,” Drejaj said.
Anthony’s older brother Frank, a 1997 SHP grad, also played for Farrell and went on to play at Manhattan College.
“The most impressive thing about Coach Farrell was how even keel he was in every situation,” Drejaj said. “There was never any panic. He was always mild mannered.
“He was always able to coach as opposed to losing his mind on a play. He could get mad like any other coach, but you didn’t see any panic in his approach to the game. He was the same whether it was a regular season Tuesday night game or the county final.”
Key Linden players lost to graduation include seniors Tavon Jones – more than 1,500 career points – and Mikey Watkins, more than 1,000 – both two-time state champions.
“Our guys this year will be our leaders,” said Drejaj, who in 2006 signed a two-year contract to play for Sigal Prishtine in Kosovo’s Super League, the premier professional league in that country. “We will be coming off a season in which we will no longer have the second-leading scorer in school history (Jones). It’s hard to see anyone else doing that.
“However, we do have players back like Myles Ruth (junior), Amir Williams (junior), Nashawn Holmes (junior) and Schadarac Petit-Holmes (senior). It’s a solid group of kids who in practice every day last year got stronger and faster.
“Now it’s their time to step in and play.”
Those fans clamoring for a Phil vs. Anthony coaching matchup of Elizabeth vs. Linden will have to wait until at least February. Then it will be up to the seeding of the Union County Tournament to see if Linden and Elizabeth are destined to play each other for the first time during the 2018-2019 campaign.
That’s because Linden and Elizabeth are not scheduled to play each other in the regular season. Elizabeth dropped down to the Union County Conference’s Mountain Division.
There is also the possibility of Linden and Elizabeth clashing in the North 2, Group 4 playoffs.
“Phil and I have a great relationship,” Drejaj said. “We’re both too much of competitors to worry about each other’s friendship once the ball goes up in the air. We will both do anything to win.
“After the game we can be friends again.”