Photo courtesy of Dave’s Joint.
By David Cordova
For many years, Phil Colicchio and the Linden Tigers were intertwined with each other. For many years, they were the main public school powerhouse in the state of New Jersey that could contend with the private and Catholic schools that were highly-touted.
In 21 seasons at Linden, Colicchio amassed a record of 450-165 and earned six Group IV state titles, nine sectional titles and three Union County titles, as well as two appearances in the Tournament of Champions title game in 2006 and 2016, where the Tigers lost to St. Patrick & St. Anthony, two Catholic school powerhouses who are now closed.
Everyone thought that Colicchio would retire as head coach at Linden, given his illustrious history on the sidelines there. But that came to a screeching halt last June, when he announced that he would be moving on to be the head coach Elizabeth High School, a place that was all too familiar to him.
When asked about the decision, he replied, “You know, Elizabeth is my hometown, I played there. I grew up on South Broad Street in Elizabeth, so I’m an Elizabeth kid. We had a new athletic administration [at Linden] that came in, and you know, we just didn’t have the same views and the opportunity [to be the head coach at Elizabeth] came aboard to come back home and I came back home.”
And what a great homecoming it has been for Colicchio, as the Minutemen gone 22-0 this season and have been knocking off plenty of teams throughout the state of New Jersey.
When asked about how surprised he was with the team’s start, he replied, “Listen, we’re 22-0. Would I have expected that? No. Not with the schedule that we’ve played and with the teams that we play. We’re enjoying this every step of the way, the kids don’t feel no pressure being undefeated. Last night [Saturday], we were down eleven with 1:50 to go and we scored the last twelve points of the game to win a game, with a three at the buzzer. The kids have been fabulous. From Day 1, they haven’t had success, so it made it really easy to buy into our program.”
With the success that they have, it’s hard for Elizabeth to get noticed, due to the dominance of the private schools in the state, such as Ranney, Roselle Catholic and St. Benedict’s, programs that have an assortment of Division I-caliber players on their roster year after year after year.
When asked about what separates his program from the others, Colicchio replied, “You know, we always have one motto here: we play for what’s on the front of our jerseys, not the back of our jerseys. So when I was at Linden, we always played for the city of Linden. Now, I’m at Elizabeth, now we’re playing for the city of Elizabeth. You know, we don’t have anybody that’s going to get recruited by John Calipari or Duke or any of those schools. We just have tough high school kids and some of them will go on to play, maybe Division II, and if they’re lucky Division III. [We] just got kids that believe in each other. In all of our games, we had six different kids lead us in scoring, which is pretty unique. They don’t care who scores, they don’t care who gets the ball, as long as we get the win, and that’s pretty remarkable in today’s day & age.”
One of the players that control the tempo on the team is Al-Fatir Connor II, a sophomore guard who recently transferred from The Patrick School and has made an immediate impact since his arrival.
On Connor, Colicchio replied, “Al was like a godsend, he was a JV player at the Patrick School and he decided to come back home to Elizabeth and play, and the kid just has the heart of a giant. You look at him and he’s all of 100 pounds, he’s 5-foot-6, and he’s like, ‘Ok, we’re going to attack him.’ He just makes play after play, he doesn’t turn the basketball over and he’s only a sophomore. He’s going to keep getting better & better. I can’t say enough about what he’s done for our team and our program, and just to come on in, from Day 1, and it’s like the last piece of the puzzle fit in perfectly.”
Another standout on the team is DeWarren “D.J.” Watkins, a junior forward on the team who is a very athletic player on both ends of the floor. “D.J. has had some great games like he did tonight [Sunday], last night [Saturday], I don’t think he scored a point, he didn’t play a lot. He’s had some ups and downs, getting used to the speed of the game down here. D.J. is a very gifted scorer, he can score in a variety of different ways. He can get the ball to the hole, he can shoot the three, he can score off his defense, it’s just a matter of D.J. understanding the game down here and putting it altogether. There’s sometimes, I think he’s ready and then other times, like last night, I said, ‘Wow, he’s missing it.’ You know, there’s a bright future for D.J.”
And then, there is senior forward Jessiah West, who also doubles as a football player. West is an amazing talent that can do many things on the court.
On West, Colicchio replied, “I mean, Jessiah West is the heart of our team. He’s been the heart of our team from Day 1. Jessiah West is, in [my] 31 years of coaching, the most incredible athlete I’ve ever coached. He cleans up a lot of our mistakes, he has to be leading New Jersey in blocked shots, he might even be leading New Jersey in dunks. The kid is unbelievable, whenever we ask him to guard a guard, guard a big man, guard a wing, block shots, rebound the basketball, score inside. He’s just been an absolutely, from Day 1, has bought into this program and he just wants to win, he hasn’t won since he’s been in high school and he’s just really wanted to win. Jessiah most likely is going to be a college football player, you know, he’s a Division I football recruit. I wish I coached him for four years, and I think he’d be one of the best players in the state of New Jersey, I really believe that.”
Other seniors that have made an impact for the Minutemen are point guard Brenden Kelly, a diminutive guard that makes slick plays, is a superb ballhandler and knows where and when to pass to his teammates. Forward Jordan Price is the the team’s X-Factor in the low-post, as he looks to make layups and putbacks and is also a great rebounder.
Elizabeth High School is synonymous with high school basketball in the state of New Jersey for a couple of reasons. One, they play in a large gymnasium called the Thomas Dunn Sports Center. The other reason is that over 30 years ago, the Minutemen were a powerhouse program.
In 1989, the Minutemen played in the first-ever NJSIAA Tournament of Champions title game, where they lost to the now-defunct St. Anthony, who would also won a mythical national championship that season. That year, as the Friars were No. 1 in the Garden State, the Minutemen finished at No. 2.
The following year, 1990, the Minutemen gained revenge and swept the Friars twice, first on February 2nd, in front of a nationally-televised audience in a game broadcast on SportsChannel America, and then a month later in the Tournament of Champions title game. When the final rankings came out, St. Anthony was No. 2 and Elizabeth finished at No. 1.
When asked about the history at Elizabeth, Colicchio added, “When I first took the job, one of the first things I said to the kids is, ‘You guys realize there’s only been four public schools to win the TOC? Do you know who they were?’ And they had no idea that Elizabeth had won it in the past. I fortunately was a coach on those teams, I was an assistant coach on those teams. I played at Elizabeth in 1984 and I graduated from there. It was the first year that Ben Candelino came in as a coach, we won the Union County championship, then we got upset in the state tournament. The next year, they won it all, they finished No. 1 in New Jersey, and it just took off from there, we won four in a row. The Luther Wright years, Alcedis Catano and Laquan Harris, whose son plays at the Patrick School. We had some great years and some great times. The first three Tournament of Champions, we were in at Elizabeth.”
As far as where he’d like to see the program go, he added, “You know, I don’t like to predict anything, I take, just like I tell the kids, we’re taking one opponent at a time, just one game at a time. Would it be a dream to be in the Tournament of Champions? Yeah, it would be a dream, it would be incredible. You know, going to Linden, had never won a Group IV state championship in the history of the school. Well, we won six of them when I was there, and you know, I’m not that young anymore, so I don’t think I’ll be around for six more at Elizabeth, but hopefully, I’m around for just one more, that would be great.”
Now, what awaits them is the Union County Tournament quarterfinals against Union on Saturday at Kean University, a team they beat twice during the season. But at this point, Colicchio plans on keeping his team grounded and have them focusing on the goal at hand: winning the County championship and then whatever comes after that.
“And again, we’ll take that one game at a time, we played Union twice already. Beat them one time really well, the other time, they gave us a game. We don’t take anybody granted this time of year, everybody can play, and hopefully, it’s win and advance and that’s what we want to do.”
Beyond next Saturday, there’s a chance they could wind up meeting either St. Mary’s-Elizabeth or Roselle Catholic in either the semifinals or championship game, provided they make it that far. But the goal is simple for Phil Colicchio and the Elizabeth Minutemen: win.
If they continue to win, there’s no telling what will be in store for them in the long run.