TOMS RIVER – Ray Cervino’s career as the head girls basketball coach at Toms River High School North was chock full of championships.
There were five WOBM Christmas Classic titles. There were nine Shore Conference Class A South titles. There were three New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association titles. There was one NJSIAA Group IV state title, won in 1999-2000 when the Mariners (29-3) became the lone Ocean County team to reach the championship game of the Tournament of Champions. And there was a 313-212 career record in 20 seasons.
Cervino’s name will live forever. The school’s gymnasium – the scene of many a Mariners success – was named the Ray Cervino Gymnasium during a ceremony in front of an estimated 200 fans – including some 40 of his former players – prior to North’s 56-23 conquest of Toms River South.
“Ray is looking down on us now,” North principal Ed Keller told the crowd. “We are very proud to add this name in perpetuity to our gym.”
A life-size cutout of Cervino, who taught history at North, was unveiled. His ex-Mariners and current North players wore blue and gold long-sleeve shooting shirts sporting their last names and jersey numbers. The shirts were donated by the Toms River South Diamond Club, the booster club of the Indians’ baseball team. Toms River Township Regional School District athletics director Ted Gillen praised Cervino in a speech.
“We are very grateful for the turnout,” said his daughter, Nicole Cervino, who starred for her father. “We are very touched. This honor is well deserved. Dad will always be part of the place he loved the most. Dad loved teaching and coaching. It is nice to know he will forever have a place here.”
“This did justice for his legacy,” said Dana Simonelli, who starred at center under Cervino’s tutelage. “He got the best out of us. I am ready to play basketball tonight. Mr. C was successful because he was genuine, intense, demanding and motivating. He was also trustworthy and he took time with you to try to understand you both as a player and a person.
“In college (at Providence) and into adulthood, Mr. Cervino always kept in touch with me. He would call me out of the blue on many occasions just to see what was the latest in my life. He would call me to get together for either lunch or dinner. During these phone calls and meetups, he would help me to figure things out in life.”
Cervino was there for Simonelli during a difficult period in her life.
“I was laid off while working in professional sports,” she said, “and I was trying to make my next decision. He simply listened and was supportive, but also asked one simple question, ‘What does mom and dad say?’ He knew the right questions to ask to help you get to the next destination. He was also very complimentary, which meant a lot to me as it gave me confidence to be the best at my career (Simonelli is a full time counselor at Manchester Township High School and a part time Licensed Associate Counselor at Sunrise Counseling and Associates in Point Pleasant).”
A Cervino protege who attended the ceremony was Melissa Fazio.
“I can’t put it into words – my emotions – as I will start to cry,” she said. “I am very happy to be a part of this.”
Fazio excelled in women’s basketball at St. Bonaventure University and played 13 professional seasons in Italy.
“He is the reason I got as far as I did,” she said. “This night is perfect, well deserved. He was honest with us. He did not sugar coat anything. That’s what made him so good. He did not baby us. When we cried, he cried. He pushed us to the limit.”
Surrounded by his family, Cervino died last Oct. 7 at the age of 78. Two of his former players, Sandy Bisogno and Kim Peto, quickly launched a petition drive to have the gymnasium named in his honor.
“We launched a website and we collected the signatures in two days,” said Bisogno, whose daughter, Caprese Madigan, a member of South’s freshman girls basketball team, performed the National Anthem prior to the game. “Everything went according to plan. Honoring coach C was a mission of ours. The board of education required a petition of more than 250 signatures to be considered for a nomination. We accumulated more than 1,900 signatures. This is a testament to the amount of lives coach C has touched in our community.”
Bisogno, an administrative assistant in the Point Pleasant Beach School District Special Education Department, said Cervino’s family played a large role in his success.
“We really wanted to honor the Cervino family,” she said. “People don’t realize the sacrifices a coach’s family makes – missing dinners and holidays. His family sacrificed a lot. It’s nice to pay homage to coach Cervino and honor his family.”
“My dad was loved by so many people,” Nicole Cervino said. “A total of 1,000 people came to dad’s funeral. The number of past students, players, coaches, teachers, neighbors, family and friends who came blew us away and they all said the same thing: My dad made them feel special. He cared about them. He always made time for them. His personality was electric. He loved talking to people and he was so smart and very funny. He loved jokes.”
Bisogno and coach Cervino respected each other.
“Coach C trusted me and valued my input,” she said. “He gave me the reigns to lead the team from the court while he led from the sidelines. After I graduated from North, coach C was a source of advice I could reach out to while at Iona College. He was never afraid to give me tough love. He went from a coach to a dear friend throughout my adult life.”
Peto and teammates Kelly Burger and Stephanie Huhn scored either 1,000 or more career varsity points on Cervino’s watch.
“He was no doubt a successful coach,” Peto said. “Obviously, he knew the game … the x’s and o’s, how to teach a successful fast break, which is what we were known for, and how to get us to play team defense whether it was man-to-man or our stifling 1-3-1 zone. But there are many more reasons as to why he was such a successful coach. He had an incredible passion for the game and was a true motivator. His pregame speeches were second to none and he knew exactly what to say to get us ready to face our opponent. That motivation continued throughout the games as he always got the best out of his players for four quarters.
“He was a great communicator. He listened to his players. He welcomed our comments, questions and input. He always encouraged us to present our ideas and thoughts. He knew his players – not just our strengths and weaknesses on the court, but he truly got to know us off the court – our personalities, our likes and dislikes, our emotions. Coach Cervino was a true leader. He built relationships that fostered trust between him and his players. It was because of his leadership that we were so successful both on and off the court!”
Peto said Cervino conducted demanding practices.
“The word I would use to describe our practices is intense,” she said. “The first half of our practices usually focused on the fundamentals of the game – ball handling, shooting, passing, rebounding, etc. The second half of practice was usually geared toward running plays, going over our defenses and running through game situations. We would spend a lot of time on our fast break offense, which was called BINGO. This was what we were known for and teams had a very hard time stopping our fast break.
“Practices on the days after our games were probably our hardest. These were the days where we spent a lot of time on conditioning. Cervino stressed being in shape and always wanted our bodies to be just as fresh in the fourth quarter as they were in the first quarter.”
Cervino also cared about his players as people.
“He loved us equally as hard off the court,” Peto said. “He was very hard on us on the court as players because he knew our potential as individuals and as a team. I remember during the school day he would check up on us, often calling us out of class just to talk about how we were doing! He truly cared about us as human beings, not just basketball players. He wanted us to be good, kind and respectful people who worked hard toward our goals. During my senior year, coach Cervino was sick and missed a few games.
“He would not miss a beat with coaching. He would call me after games to talk about the game – what we did well, what we could have done better – but most of all to check up on how I was doing as a person,” she said.
Peto, a seventh grade special education math and science teacher at Toms River Intermediate School South, knew Cervino for a long time.
“My relationship with coach Cervino dates back to well before I entered high school,” she said. “Our families have long been friends. When looking through old pictures after he passed away, I found a picture of him at my first birthday party.”
Nicole Cervino, now known as Nicole Kirk after her marriage to retired Point Pleasant Boro High School head wrestling coach Dave Kirk, played point guard for her father from 1987-90. She scored 1,175 career points. She graduated second on the Mariners’ career assists list (543). She was second in assists in a single season with 220. She starred at point guard at the collegiate level at Monmouth from 1990-94, earning All-Northeast Conference honors and leading the league in assists.
“I always wanted to make dad proud and I took great pride in having him as my coach as it was always evident that he was the best of the best,” the seventh and eighth grade teacher at the Spring Lake Heights Elementary School said. “To play for someone like that is a dream as a player. He influenced me to be the player I was. He loved being a people person. He felt building and maintaining relationships was very important. He believed in telling people how he felt and loved to compliment people.
“As a player, I know he was successful because he had this perfect combination of being extremely hard on us, but we always knew he valued us as players and as young women. We knew he gave us 200 percent of his efforts and we always tried to give him that in return. And if we didn’t, boy were we going to hear about it. He had this uncanny way of making everyone want to be better. We all knew our roles and whether you were the 10th man off the bench or the starting point guard he made sure you were prepared.”
Cervino said she enjoyed playing for her dad.
“Honestly,” she said, “it was so long ago. I’m turning 51 and the beauty of life as we age is seeing things for what they truly are. At the time, I thought it was a blessing and a curse. It isn’t easy playing for a parent particularly when you are young and the point guard. Let’s be honest. Point guards always take the brunt of yelling as they are responsible for the offense. But now, as an adult, I know it was only a blessing to be coached by my dad. He was truly the best coach I ever had and he taught me everything I ever needed to know about the game.
“No one ever compared to him in my eyes. I am grateful that he dragged me to his practices as a little elementary schooler to watch his team and that his love of the game spilled into me. I loved making him proud. We bonded over basketball, ” she said.
Coach Cervino had many sayings on the court. Among them was “Geez O Man.” Another one was, “You frost my apricots.” Yet another was, “Flippin’ for the F bomb.” He pointed to his head and bellowed, “Very unintelligent play.”
Off the court, he said, “Yeah…I said, Yeah!” There was, “Squeeze me,” for excuse me or “Oatmeal brain” if he did something silly. Another saying was, “It went the way of the rotary phone.” When frustrated, the legend also used the phrase, “That bloody thing.”
Cervino was a fiery coach.
“My dad got a T (technical foul) and a ref started to berate him,” Nicole Cervino recalled. “My dad put his hand up and said to the ref, ‘SIR – please whatever you do – don’t blame me for your ineptness.’ My dad then got his second T of the game (and was ejected).”
Cervino was a coach who did not waste time.
“I remember my dad being very organized,” Nicole Cervino said. “Not one ounce of practice time was wasted. I remember his sense of humor and how even in the middle of a hard, tense practice he’d crack a joke and make us laugh.”
A long time assistant coach was Steve Hill.
“Coach Hill remembers my dad writing his practice schedule out down to the minute,” Nicole Cervino said. “Coach Hill said much of my dad’s success came from his ability to make everyone feel involved and have a part in the team’s success. He always consulted his assistant coaches and always asked his assistants what they thought. My dad would meet after every practice for 15 minutes and meet with his assistants to talk strategy.”
Coach Cervino was rarely criticized.
“I do not remember my dad being criticized much,” Nicole Cervino said. “He was very loving to all of us. I remember one funny story, though. Once, someone complained as he hugged me as I walked onto the court and a parent from the other team complained. I remember me laughing as they clearly didn’t know he was my dad and he could hug me all he wanted. He hugged all of his players; he loved us all.”
Coach Cervino stressed defense.
“We lived and died by our D,” Nicole Cervino said. “He was a big believer in it. His 1-3-1 defense was the best around. He also had three different defenses going at once. One was for made foul shots. One was for the sideline. One was for made baskets. It kept the offense guessing.”
Coach Cervino despised losing.
“My dad was a competitor so he obviously did not like losing,” Nicole Cervino said, “but he always tried to learn from it and improve. He knew the girls were prepared and if they got beat sticking to their philosophy he understood it and was always positive and upbeat the next day. He never blamed anyone. It was a team effort win or lose.”
Gillen praised Cervino for his work on and off the court.
“l’d like to personally welcome Ray’s family, his wife, Mary, his daughters, Nicole and Vicky, and his son, Adam, back to the court where their dad and husband spent so much time,” he told the crowd. “I would also like to recognize his many former players who played for Ray and wanted to be present tonight. Tonight, we have placed a name on this gymnasium that is synonymous with great coaching, great teaching and great character.
“Coach Cervino was a beloved history teacher here at High School North for more than two decades and served as the girls basketball coach for 20 seasons. Coach Cervino’s record and statistics provide only a hint of the man’s meaning and impact he had on his students, his colleagues and most certainly his players. He challenged his girls.
“He pushed them hard and in the words of former player Kim Peto, ‘He loved us even harder.’ His common expression, ‘Geez oh man,’ and bellowing voice could be heard throughout this gym yet his cheeky smile could immediately put you at ease.
“Conversations with Ray made you think, made you smile and made you laugh. They are some of the greatest attributes that any student-athlete could hope for from a teacher or coach. As his longtime friend, Kevin Williams (a journalist), told me just last week in this building – and his family can attest to this statement – ‘This was Ray’s home away from home.’ I’d like to thank the family of coach Cervino for sharing him with the many student-athletes who benefited so immensely because of him.”
Cervino was a Point Pleasant Beach councilman from 2007-2010. The Republican became embroiled in a controversy involving a pre meeting reading of the Lord’s Prayer on Nov. 30, 2010, the Associated Press reported.
The dispute developed enough traction to draw a New York City-based television crew to the meeting. As the cameras rolled, Cervino stood up and intoned, “God, we beseech you to provide us with the wisdom to make the correct decisions on this night and all the days going forward. In your name, Amen,” before giving himself the Sign of the Cross.
Cervino, who was a big backer of promoting the town’s business district, called the religious dispute, “political correctness out of control. The majority, to me, still means something. I think whatever the majority decides, that’s the way I’m going to go.”
Mossa said Cervino was an intense admirer of President Reagan, resulting in the cutout.
“There was a picture of President Reagan on the back wall of Ray’s classroom,” she said, “and Ray would salute the picture each day.”
Cervino was employed by the Toms River Township Regional School District from 1971-2001 and coached the Mariners from 1980-2001. He was inducted into the district’s Athletics Hall of Fame with Nicole Cervino in 2010. He was inducted into the New Jersey State Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2001. He was named Coach of the Year numerous times by the media.
The Maple Shade native was a member of the Holy Cross Preparatory Academy’s first graduating class in 1961. He played baseball and basketball at the Delran school. He competed in basketball and baseball at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and tried out for shortstop with the Philadelphia Phillies.