Legacy Lives on Five Years Later

Kathy Snyder’s Influence Permeates Southern Regional and Beyond

By DAVID BIGGY | Jan 23, 2019
Courtesy of: Southern Athletics For more than three decades, Kathy Snyder had a significant influence on thousands of student-athletes at Southern Regional, some of whom still carry on her passionate, gritty legacy today.

One January day in 2014, Southern Regional Superintendent Craig Henry purposely crossed paths with Kathy Snyder to briefly discuss Snyder’s plan to start grooming Tom Bucci as the next head coach of her beloved girls basketball program, something they already had discussed days earlier.

“We were in the 9/10 (building) office and I just wanted to follow up with her, to suggest that maybe it’s time to start talking to Tom about it,” Henry recalled. “Then I said to her, ‘But that’s all dependent on you and what your timeline is.’ So, she asked, ‘Well, what’s your timeline?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t have one yet. But maybe we make a deal and you tell me and I’ll tell you when it’s time, and we’ll walk out together holding hands.’ And she said ...”

Henry paused for a long moment, overcome by emotion.

“She said, ‘That’s a deal. We came in together and I can’t think of a better way to go out then holding hands going out the door.’ And I said to her, ‘But we’re not looking back.’ Her answer was ‘But we can look at each other, right?’ I said, ‘Sure,’ and that was the last conversation I had with her. I didn’t think it would be the last one.”

By the next morning, Snyder had passed away.

“It was a morning I’ll never forget,” said Henry, who was hired the same day as Snyder in August 1977. “My reaction to the news when I first got the call from our principal, Eric Wilhelm, is unprintable.”

For certain, Jan. 24, 2014, is a day many at Southern Regional High School still wished was a nightmare that never really occurred. Outside the district, the earth-shattering news affected thousands more – Liz Law among them.

“I was pulled into the guidance office by Erin Neyer,” said Law, who had just been given the reins to Pinelands Regional School District’s field hockey program from Neyer, who had played for Snyder at Southern. “She said very plainly, ‘Kathy died.’ And I thought she was talking about somebody at Pinelands. When she said, ‘No, it was Kathy Snyder,’ my hand went to my chest and I looked at her and asked her, so selfishly, ‘My Kath?’ Then I just fell to the floor and broke down.”

Days later, Snyder’s viewing and the memorial service held inside the high school’s 11/12 gymnasium were attended by many hundreds – family, friends, current and former colleagues, current and former athletes and students, coaches who had been on the opposite sidelines for both field hockey and basketball games, and administrators from other school districts who had known the Snyder family.

“It was a tough week for all of us here at Southern,” said Athletic Director Chuck Donohue Jr., who years before taking his current position coached the freshman girls team under Snyder. “She had such a huge impact on so many people. She’s a legend. There’s no doubt about it.”

Five years later, Kathy Snyder’s legendary impact still permeates within the Southern district and even has penetrated other districts, near and far, by way of individuals who played for and were directly influenced by her.

The Legacy
Lives On

Back in mid-November, as the girls basketball team’s preseason got underway, Bucci and assistants Eric Sharkey and Keith Cocuzza sat down with the program’s players and passed around a pair of shoes.

“My day starts at 3:30 a.m. and I go into my basement to work out, where I have a pair of Kathy’s shoes that her son, Brandon, graciously gave me after she had passed,” Bucci explained. “But as the preseason started, I realized that none of the girls on the team knew Kathy. So for the first time since Brandon gave them to me, I took those shoes out of my house and brought them to the school.”

The trio of coaches, all connected to Snyder in some way – Sharkey and Kathy’s son Brandon Snyder are best friends, and Cocuzza first met Kathy when he was in high school and dating former standout athlete Tara O’Callahan, who, tragically, had died in October 2004 – took time to share stories of the legendary coach, detailing for the young players how the program had been shaped by Snyder’s extraordinary influence, the shoes passing among them during the discussion.

“We have no problem sharing who Kathy was, what she still is here, and how the values and characteristics she instilled here are still very much a part of this program,” Bucci said. “She’s here, every day. She’s never left. As long as I’m at Southern, those values she instilled are going to keep going. I’m holding what she did, and I’m going to keep spreading her message to do things right. I’m just an extension of what she did here.”

Of course, at about the time Snyder had planned to start grooming Bucci to take over her basketball program, the groundwork had developed to provide one of Snyder’s many former players, Jenna Lombardo, the opportunity to take over her field hockey program. Lombardo recently completed her fourth season as the Rams’ head coach.

And while Lombardo clearly has carried on the Snyder legacy of player accountability, fairness, grit and determination, along with intricate game knowledge and preparation skills, the list of former players who continue to carry that torch runs quite long and has spread well beyond the grounds of Southern Regional.

Former field hockey goaltender and hoops star Kristen Sharkey is an assistant coach with the University of Buffalo women’s basketball team. Former basketball guard Tammy Nicolini, who played for Snyder in the 1980s, is the Barnegat High School girls hoops coach. Kayla Berkheiser, a former hoops and field hockey player, is the varsity basketball head coach at Bergenfield High School, while her twin sister, Melissa, is an assistant hoops coach at Butler High School. Those are just a handful of examples.

“Before games, I listen to the national anthem with my hand over my heart, and Kathy always comes across my mind,” said Kayla Berkheiser, a math teacher at the small Bergen County school. “I’m always asking myself what she would have done in certain situations, how I can make an impact on my players the way she did for me, what the next step might be. I take her with me in my heart every time, wherever I’m with my team. I believe she’s still guiding me in some way.”

The 29-year-old twins both said Snyder never allowed a player to lower the standards she set for them or give up on themselves, always held them accountable, always encouraged them to be their best for not just themselves, but for the overall benefit of the program. Melissa Berkheiser’s role might be slightly different than her sister’s at a different school, but Snyder’s passion for the sport and for her players’ success, in anything, hasn’t wavered.

“Kathy was always for the good of the kid and the team,” Melissa said. “That’s all she wanted – what was best for them. And her passion in all that went a long way. As an athlete, you saw her passion, and it made you work harder. And, sure, sometimes she exercised tough love because she knew that it sometimes molds somebody to be who they eventually become, and that was always her priority. She was teaching you for life, not just for a game, and that’s something that really helped me. I love what I do, and I want that passion to be seen by the players I help coach now.”

But of the many former players nowadays exuding Snyder’s passion as coaches, Law seems to have embodied most of Snyder’s coaching style. She doesn’t yell out instructions nearly as loudly as Snyder used to, but she’s every bit as interactive with her players both on the field and on the bench, constantly in coordination with her assistants, and brings a similar level of hockey knowledge and preparation skills to the field every day.

“I learned so many lessons from Kathy,” she said. “I drive to practice every day and think about how I can take what she taught me and bring it into my program at Pinelands. And it’s not just about hockey skill, but more about integrity and leadership, honoring your teammates and lifting up everybody else. What Kathy’s done for so many women, I hope to be just a fraction of that.”

Far More Than
A Passionate Coach

For as much as Snyder gave to her players, she gave even more to her family. Her daughters, Erin and Morgan, both had the privilege to play sports under their mother’s tutelage and go to bed at night always knowing she was there for them. Brandon also knew her compassionate, motherly love at home but, of course, never played a varsity sport under her. Instead, he was relegated to her gym class and being graded by her.

“She treated me like everybody else in class, which was fair,” said Brandon, now in his fifth year as a special education teacher and a coach in the Southern district. “Whether you were an athlete playing for her or one of her students, she treated you with respect. Yeah, she was tough, but she let you know why she was being tough on you. She had expectations for you, but you always knew what they were, and she respected you as a person. That’s the biggest thing I took from watching her, and I try to model that in how I teach and coach.

“But off the court and field, she understood there was more to life than sports, and the positive bonds she developed with so many people were a testament to how much she invested in them. But as great as she was as a coach and a mentor, she was more unbelievable as a mom.”

Craig Henry said Kathy Snyder also was an amazing friend and colleague to so many, an individual who spoke her mind but always put others first – even during the time she was being treated for breast cancer.

“Kathy always gave of herself. And, yeah, there were the days when she’d be out on the field, take a minute to go vomit behind the bench, and then got right back to the game,” he said. “She was there for anybody she knew. Her passion, dedication and pragmatic humanitarian understanding was incredible. She did a lot of things for a lot of kids that nobody ever knew about. Even during her hard times, Kathy made time for people.”

Donohue was the recipient of many of Snyder’s thoughtful moments.

“I was fortunate to have so many varying relationships with her,” he said. “I learned a lot from Kathy, and she always watched my back. When I got the AD job, she was really happy for me and offered me advice on how to be successful. I was able to lean on her a little if I had to. But beyond that, she always put the kids first, and really understood how to put them in the right positions to succeed, not just on the field or the court, but later in life.”

Still today, Bucci is all about passing on the life lessons Snyder taught to her players and students.

“The wins and losses were always secondary to her,” he said. “We’re teaching life lessons, and we want these girls, and our students, to take what we’ve taught them and be able to get through anything. When they experience a loss, or when they experience not getting a job or losing a job, or something goes bad with a boyfriend or husband, it’s not the end of the world and they can fight through it, work through it, and get better from it. That’s who Kathy was, and the roadmap for success, on the court and in life, was there for us to use because of Kathy. We just follow it.”

Not surprisingly, when Brandon Snyder hears somebody refer to his mother and the stories many throughout the district share with him about her, he can’t help but admire the impact she had on so many individuals.

“It’s every day,” he said a smile on his face. “I talk to one person or another and somebody has something to say about my mom. She touched so many lives – coaches, co-workers, former students who want to come back and teach or coach, or those who are already teaching and coaching here – and I’m so happy to be here to hear all those stories and memories. It’s still hard sometimes that she’s not here, but it’s so cool knowing she did so many things well and had such a lasting influence on so many people.”

Law summed it up nicely.

“We all hit the jackpot with Kathy Snyder.”

biggy@thesandpaper.net

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