HAMMONTON—The last few weeks have been tough for Joe Martino.
For the first time that he can remember, Martino didn’t step onto a basketball court in December due to novel coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions.
Hammonton High School’s boys basketball coach is preparing for his 20th season at his alma mater.
“It’s been frustrating [not being on the court],” Martino said.
“I take it year by year and I’m as excited as I was 20 years ago. I love the game of basketball. I love being around the kids. I love the competition. So, this is all fun for me and I really have had a hard time since late spring, when you’re usually gearing up for the summer to get ready and to not have that and not be coaching right now, it’s been tough. I talked to my wife the other night and I said I wasn’t sure how this would work out, the time off has been great and it’s been nice to have time with the family and I’ve enjoyed that, but I’m looking forward to getting back out on the court as long as it’s safe and they say we can go,” Martino said.
Martino has enjoyed many highs and lows since taking over for Frank DiMeo in the winter of 2001. He has led the Blue Devils to the state playoffs several times, including the 2008 South Jersey Group 2 championship game, and also had some tough losing seasons. Through it all, the HHS alumnus said he has always enjoyed the challenges each new season presents.
“Every season is a challenge. It’s different every year and your team is different. There are some years when I might have two really good post players, and our two big guys need to be out there and I have to play a certain way and there are other years that could be all guards and you have to change up. You keep some of the same principals, but it’s a challenge and every team is different. All the kids are different and how you plan out a strategy is challenging and that’s what I really like. Also getting the kids to play at a higher level every year is the main thing, trying to take them from point A to point B. I always say teaching and coaching is taking a student or a player where they can’t take themselves and I would say that’s my motto,” Martino said.
Prior to Martino’s tenure at Hammonton, the Blue Devils had struggled for almost five decades. The Blue Devils were Cape Atlantic League champions in 1950, but after a few more strong seasons, Hammonton suffered almost 50-straight losing years. Martino ended that stretch in 2004-05 when Hammonton finished with a .500 record. Two years later, the Devils posted a 15-12 mark, their best since 1950.
“We struggled for a while, but we eventually had some success,” Martino said.
Taking Hammonton to the 2008 sectional title game was a high point for Martino.
“Having the first winning season in I don’t know how many years, taking a program that struggled for 50-some years and then making the playoffs four years in-a-row, the old-fashioned way where you had to be .500. Prior to that, Hammonton had two playoff teams in 50 years and we did it four years in-a-row. And we did it against some pretty good completion in the Cape Atlantic League and to be able to make and while it doesn’t sound like much of an accomplishment, looking back and seeing where our program was, it was a great accomplishment,” Martino said.
Under Martino’s direction, Hammonton may not always have been contenders, but the Blue Devils have always been well-coached and competitive.
“We had a couple 20-win seasons. I’ve had the opportunity to coach some really good players over the years. And it’s about the kids, about the players and I’m really thankful for being here because I’ve had great kids, and I’ve had great support, the parents have been awesome and I’ve enjoyed my 20 years and I’m looking forward to coaching this year,” Martino said.
This season will be special for Martino because his son joins the Blue Devils as a freshman.
“I have my son coming up now, he’s a freshman, not quite ready to play at the varsity level, but fun to have him in the program now and to have the opportunity to hopefully coach him. I’ve been coaching everybody else’s kids for 20-some years and prior to coming to Hammonton coaching different places high schools and college and finally have the opportunity to coach my own kid,” Martino said.
While having his son on the team may bring some new challenges, Martino will also deal with COVID-19 concerns as well as Hammonton’s return to the Cape Atlantic League (CAL) after six seasons in the Tri-County Conference.
“I think we’re in a tough spot with the CAL, and we’re in a tough division. It’s just for this year, they did it by geography, I don’t quite understand it but we play who we play. I’m just happy that we’re playing. Our practice time will be limited this year, and I think you’ll see a little different style from us than what you’re used to seeing, but we’ll do our best,” Martino said.
Martino has had his share of high and low points, but says he has few regrets. If he could have one game to play again, it would be the 2008 championship loss to Timber Creek.
“That’s one I think about a lot, maybe every day it crosses my mind. Maybe if we’d done things a little differently we win that game. That’s one always comes back,” Martino said.
Throughout his two decades at Hammonton, Martino has focused on getting his players to grow as athletes and young men.
“[I hope they learn] how to handle adversity. I always say that the game of basketball brings adversity on the court and off the court, in the season and in the off seasons. [Teaching them] how to handle those situations. Also how to lead. I don’t always name one or two captains, I always just tell the group, you’re young men and you need to lead yourself. That’s the biggest thing, that’s the message I want them to have then they leave here. That you can handle adversity, get knocked down and they’re going to get up, That’s life,” Martino said.