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HS Then and Now: 'Wojo' Is Happy To Share With Old Pals, Foes

By Keith Mills
 
Together, John Brady and Jerry Savage have combined to win nearly 1,300 high school basketball games, but last Saturday at the Leadership Through Athletics Center in Lansdowne they were jotting down notes like school kids from a talk given by a former player they coached against 14 years ago.

“It’s very heartening, considering all the people who had opportunities and didn’t take advantage of it, that Steve would come back here and share what he’s learned,” said Brady, who has won 630 games at Annapolis High School.

Steve is Steve Wojciechowski, now in his ninth year as one of Mike Krzyzewski’s assistant coaches at Duke and one of the great success stories in local basketball history. Last Saturday, he came back to put on a clinic to area high school coaches who will always remember “Wojo” as an all-state soccer player at Cardinal Gibbons and the ferocious leader of Ray Mullis’ Catholic League basketball champs.

“It’s always good to see those guys who are very, very good go on to the next level and do well," said Savage, who won 640 games at Loyola Blakefield and is now the girls coach at Maryvale Prep. "He was very, very quick and very strong with tremendous desire. I’m sure Dean Smith and Coach K saw that and recruited him, and it turned out very well.”

For two hours, Wojciechowski gave the 125 coaches a lesson in Duke basketball -- more specifically, the Duke defense that has been synonymous with Krzyzewski's run of three national championships and 10 Final Fours. Wojciechowski made a name for himself with slap-the-floor, in-your-face defense in his four-year career at Duke, capped off by the 6-foot senior being named collegiate Defensive Player of the Year in 1998.

“Slapping the floor began way before I got to Duke,” Wojciechowski said. “I’m so low to the ground it happened naturally. It means it’s time to play defense. We usually did it right before we needed a big stop. It didn’t work every time, but it did work a lot of times.”

"You can see the passion and the love he has for the game," said Gibbons coach Jeff Cheevers. "He got a chance to spend some time with our guys on Friday, and knowing what he's done, not just at Gibbons but at Duke as a player and a coach, it really showed our guys what hard work can do for you."

***

Discipline. Confidence. Integrity. Character. They are four words you can find posted inside the LTA Center -- four words that describe Wojciechowski perfectly. 

He began his athletic career when he was 6 years old playing soccer, not basketball, for the Severna Park Green Hornets. When he was 10, he played his first year of basketball for Ed Wilson’s local rec team in Severna Park. Wilson, a fellow member of the Anne Arundel County Sports Hall of Fame, was courtside at LTA when Wojciechowski put on his clinic.

“I’ve never seen anybody give more to kids than Mr. Wilson,” Wojciechowski said. “For 40 years, he’s been giving free clinics. Anybody with a white T-shirt and a water bottle can attend. He’s a treasure for the state of Maryland. He’s been a treasure in my life and so many other kids’.”

Peggy and Ed Wojciechowski were also courtside last Saturday, just as they were in 1994 at Loyola College when their son led the Gibbons Crusaders to their seventh and final championship, a 70-66 win over St. Frances for the Catholic League title. 

Brian Moorehouse was on the first championship team in 1970 when Gibbons shared the MSA A Conference title with City College.

“Steve was not only a great player,” said Moorehouse, who introduced Wojciechowski to the gathering of coaches. “He was also a great student, and he really cared about his coaches and his teammates.” 

Moorehouse was an assistant coach on the '94 championship team. A year later, he was the head coach, replacing Mullis, who passed away after guiding the Crusaders to six Catholic League titles. 

“Steve always did things the right way,” Moorehouse said. “He practiced like he played.”

Josh Davalli is now the coach at Loyola Blakefield. He was a Gibbons sophomore when Wojciechowski was a senior and will never forget the Sunday afternoon when the trademark Wojo Mojo surfaced ... in warm-ups.

“We were warming up against [Mount St. Joseph],” Davalli said, “There was about 15 minutes left before the game, and we weren’t warming up hard enough, we were going through the motions. He took our whole team back to the locker room and let us know in his own way we weren’t warming up good enough. He actually slammed his hand against the wall. We were worried he broke his hand. The intensity was amazing. We went back up, warmed up harder, played a great game and won. Steve doesn’t settle for anything but the best for himself and the people around him.”

A few weeks later, in early March 1994, Davalli and Wojciechowski helped Gibbons win its final Catholic League championship. 

Mark Karcher was a freshman for St. Frances, and the Panthers looked like a lock to send the Crusaders home with a loss.

“We were down 9 with 1:09 left,” Wojciechowski said. “Josh hit three big 3s, and I hit a layup at the end of regulation, and we were fortunate to win the game. I’ll always remember that.”

“His senior year, what you remember the most was how he really controlled the game,” Savage said. “It was so hard to keep him away from the ball, or when he got the ball, he had such complete control of the game.”

“We would scrimmage them every year,” Brady said. “It was our first scrimmage of the year, and you knew it would be a good test as to where you were as a team. He was very quick. Even today, 31 years old, he’s out there guarding the ball better than an 18-year-old kid. That’s why he got playing time at Duke. He was a very good player.”

Indeed, that trademark fire and intensity was evident during his clinic, thanks to an assist from Tom, Mike, Pat and Sally Grace.

He was so knowledgeable, confident and passionate in his presentation that many wondered if he would get his own head coaching job one day.

"I get asked that all the time," Wojciechowski said. "It's one of those things when the timing's right, and I feel I can excel, that's when I'll do it. I'm in a great situation at Duke, working with Coach K. He's the best mentor and teacher you could have. I love my job, but at some point I'd love to be a head coach."

***

Knowledge. Respect. Leadership. Responsibility. Four more words posted throughout the LTA center are a direct reflection on the philosophy of the family that built it. Dr. Tom Grace and his brothers Mike and Pat opened the gym four years ago to help area kids, and it has been a huge asset to the community.

The Grace brothers all played basketball at Gibbons under Mullis. Their children either played or are playing at Gibbons, Seton Keough and Mount de Sales. 

"We are obviously proud that Steve would come back and take time out of his busy schedule to be with us," said Tom Grace, a surgeon at St. Agnes Hospital. "It's very satisfying to watch him grow up and now see the success he's having as a coach."

Wojciechowski is the third college coach to come to the LTA as part of a series that began two years ago. Last year, Maryland's Gary Williams addressed the local coaches, and two years ago it was Jay Wright, coach at Villanova.

"What Tom and his brothers have done is a really big deal," Brady said. "Jay, Gary and now Steve. It's pretty impressive."

Grace's son, Tom Jr., played under Wright at Villanova after a successful career at Gibbons ended seven years ago. He is also the oldest of six offspring and one of 10 Grace cousins who received private tutoring from Wojciechowski 14 years ago when he was getting ready for his freshman year at Duke.

"Me, Molly, Maggie, Sally, Mike, Nick, Pat, Charles, Sarah and Alex," said Tom, ripping off the names of his sisters and cousins. "Steve worked with us that summer. I was going into eighth grade, and my sisters and cousins were all young. It was great."

Pat Grace is playing now at the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., while Sally Grace is a sophomore at McDaniel College, where she plays for longtime coach Becky Martin.

"That was my first contact into coaching, and I loved it," Wojciechowski said. "I would take the kids and work with them. It was a great experience."

And so it was for the coaches who gathered to welcome back one of their own.

Since mid-July, Wojciechowski hasn't been home more than three days in a row due to recruiting. This past August, he spent five weeks in Las Vegas, helping Krzyzewski with the U.S. National team. Now, he returns to Durham to get ready for the 2007-08 season and welcome the birth of his first child with his wife Lindsey

"It's a crazy time," Wojciechowski said. "I'm so looking forward to being a dad. But it's happening amidst all of this craziness, the season starting and the end of recruiting. But I'm getting ready for it. I can't wait." 

ENGLISH AND HIGGINS COMMIT

Johnny Higgins and Kimmie English both helped Randallstown win state basketball championships three straight years and this year are teammates at Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Mass. But they will now continue their college careers at different schools.

Higgins announced he will attend the Duquesne University next year while English is headed to Missouri of the Big 12. Both also played for the Cecil-Kirk AAU team in East Baltimore, helping Anthony Lewis' club win the 2007 Las Vegas Youth AAU championship last summer.

Higgins, a 6-foot-2 shooting guard, helped Kim Rivers' Rams win back-to-back state titles in 2005 and 2006. He averaged 27 points a game during his final year at Randallstown, which ended with a 64-54 win over Wicomico High in the Class 2A state title game in March of 2006 at the Comcast Center in College Park. 

A year earlier, he averaged 15 points a game as Randallstown won the Class 3A title.  English played on Randallstown's third straight state championship team in March of '07 and is a smooth, 6-foot-7 swing guard who was also recruited by Miami, Florida State, Tennessee, Seton Hall and Rutgers.

Higgins was recruited by Rhode Island, St. Bonaventure and Georgia, where Levi Stukes, another Randallstown alumnus, recently finished an outstanding four-year career. 

OEMING NAMED RAVENS TOP COACH

Jeff Oeming, head football coach at North Carroll High School in Hampstead was named Ravens High School Coach of the Week. Oeming earned the nod after North Carroll defeated Century High School, 14-3, last Friday night.

The Panthers improved their record to 5-0 -- the first 5-0 start for North Carroll in more than 10 years.

Posting a 4-6 season in 2006, and just one winning season in 20 years, the turnaround is welcome and overdue. With the current 5-0 record, North Carroll remains the only unbeaten team in Carroll County.

“I think it’s a culminating effort from a whole lot of people,” Oeming said. “We started out with a lot of people -- the parents, administration, assistant coaches, all realizing that we could only achieve our goals if we put this all together. This award is attributed to a tremendous amount of work that’s gone into the team, with the people involved.”

This is the first Ravens High School Coach of the Week honor for Oeming. He is in his 31st season coaching overall, including this, his second stint as head coach at North Carroll. He coached the Panthers to a 6-4 season in 1986.

Each week during the season, the Ravens honor a high school coach who has made a significant impact on his athletes. Each of the season’s weekly winners will be present when the Ravens host the Colts Dec. 9, for the naming of the Ravens High School Coach of the Year.

Issue 2.41: October 11, 2007