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NOTRE DAME HIGH SCHOOL - The Fighting Irish are Back in Donovan’s Den
After an extensive search, John McKenna was hired as a full-time Strength and Conditioning Coach and Associate Head Football Coach. Coach McKenna had 20 years of experience as a football coach.
By Jerry Wargo
Published: Summer 2001

In 1992, Coach Chappy Moore retired from coaching with a 126-31-1 record at Notre Dame High School, which is located in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. His overall coaching record of 182 wins and 57 losses had earned him COACH OF THE YEAR honors in MONTGOMERY, DELAWARE, PHILADELPHIA and MERCER COUNTIES.
Chappy had won two State titles in New Jersey and had the #1 team in the state of Pennsylvania. Being a member of the National Football Foundation, Hall of Fame, and the New Jersey Coaches Hall of Fame were just a few of his many honors.
Retirement was due to a heart attack. For his health, he walked away from a solid program loaded with tradition, school and community fan support, and most important, where each player was like one of his sons.
During his 6-year absence from football, Coach Moore’s health improved with a new diet and exercise plan. During his absence from football, the health of Notre Dame began to slip with a 25-21-1 record over 6 seasons.
In 1999 the head football coach job opened at Notre Dame and a 35-pound lighter, much healthier Chappy Moore was again head coach. For the coach known for his “platoon football system”, the first priority was to put together one of the finest weight rooms on the East Coast. In his mind, he knew that it would take good equipment, but the key to success would be to find the right “driver”. With the help of his wife, Elsie, who teaches Sports Medicine at Notre Dame, and Fred Collender, a full-day weight program was proposed to Principal Barry Breen. With the principal’s full support, the wheels were put into motion. There was already a weight room, but it needed equipment, direction, and passion. The room had been dedicated to the memory or Keith Donovan, who was a former Notre Dame football player. With the financial help of the Donovan family, Friends of Irish Football and Notre Dame, everyone was anxious to get started.


After an extensive search, Coach Moore felt he had found the right “driver”. John McKenna was hired as a full-time Strength and Conditioning Coach and Associate Head Football Coach. Coach McKenna had 20 years of experience as a football coach, along with stints coaching softball, baseball and wrestling. He was certified in strength and conditioning by Bigger Faster Stronger and as a Strength Consultant by the American Fitness Professionals and Associates, with 15 years of strength training experience. As Coach Moore stated “What sold me on John McKenna was his energy and determination to work with all athletes. He is one of the most dedicated and hardest working coaches that I have ever encountered.”
There was no doubt in Coach Moore’s mind that he had found the driving force for Donovan’s Den. The players have responded to Coach McKenna’s program with their hard work - getting great results. But, every player will tell you that it is Coach McKenna’s knowledge, passion and willingness to go the extra mile that keeps them coming back. “Coach is always there for us, if it is to lift, or just talk. He is the kind of role model all athletes should have. We are lucky to have him,” stated Ryan Jenkins, senior defensive tackle.
The program was set up so that students, in 12-week periods, could have the option to go to the weight room for their regular gym classes. At this time, after two years, we now have 600 students working out during the school day. Add this number to the after-school lifters and the fact that all Notre Dame teams are either on an in-season or an off-season program. We are touching over 800 student/athletes out of 1,150 who attend Notre Dame. During the summer, Donovan’s Den is open 8 hours a day. We want our kids lifting at Notre Dame so that we can continually monitor their progress.
A Freshman Orientation (3-day lifting camp) is run the end of June. The freshmen then begin a readiness program during the summer. Only when all techniques are mastered are they allowed to move up in weight. One of the greatest accomplishments that Coach McKenna and Coach Moore have achieved is that all this takes place with a family atmosphere. The older athletes watch over the young guys like big brothers and are there to help and encourage. This takes the “fear of the weight room” away from freshmen and females.


After two years, it’s nice to look back and see what the program has done for our school community. First, and most important, it has unified all the sport programs. Coaches who at one point were only interested in students playing their sport, are now working together with other coaches for the student-athletes to be more well rounded. The faculty has picked up on the program, whether it’s in the new cardio room (donated by the Donovan family), doing the Tae-Be fitness tapes, or just lifting weights. They have become part of our weight-room family. Even our school priest, Father Bob Tynski, has become a die-hard lifter. One of our highlights was cheering on Father Bob as he attempted a 300 pound bench. When he cleared the lift, high fives and smiles filled the room as he signed his name on the 300 pound bench wall. The local papers have also picked up on the program, with several articles being written. Even as far away as West Virginia University, they have heard of the Notre Dame lifting program.
When the program first started there was only one 300-pound bencher and the parallel squat was unheard of. After just 5 months of the BFS system, along with alternative exercises picked up from Al Johnson (WVU) and Brian Neese (1999 America’s Strongest Man Champion), our testing prior to football camp came with great strides in the right direction. Sixteen players tested at 300 or better in the bench press and great technique was obtained in the parallel squat. That year, the football team went 7 and 3, with a loss in the State playoff first round. The biggest thing that most players liked about their first year of BFS was that they got stronger as the season went on.


It is said that championships are won from January through August, so back to work we went. Sticking to the plan and fine tuning our program, we were thrilled with our pre-2000 season test.
On the bench press, 33 players lifted 300 pounds or more and 4 players bench pressed over 400 pounds. On the parallel squat, there were 18 players over 400 pounds. Dot drill times improved an average of 13 seconds per player. Team times for the 40-yard dash improved .02 seconds. Our biggest improvement was Ryan Jenkins, a senior (Captain) defensive tackle. Ryan went from a 5.38 forty time to a 4.9. Jenkins was also one of those 400 plus in the bench and squat. Ryan credits his speed improvement to stretching, squatting and the straight-leg dead lift. Larry Kelliher, also a senior defensive tackle and a 400 plus in both lifts, improved his 40 speed from a 5.16 to a 4.93. Both have a super work ethic. Missing a workout was just unheard of. “I feel sorry for those guys who don’t lift,” stated Kelliher. “First, they are selling their team short and second, Coach McKenna will track them down.”


Notre Dame’s first big test in 2000 was to come against Hamilton West, a power house in recent years. Hamilton West is a well-coached team, loaded with great players.
The stage was set, the community was buzzing with a game of the year talk. But all the excitement was put on hold when the Hamilton West teachers went on strike. With Hamilton’s season on hold, Notre Dame continued to play and rolled to a 7 and 0 record. The game of the year was rescheduled and played in front of a packed house. When the dust settled, Notre Dame won 19 to 0. This was the first time Hamilton West had been shut out in years. The football team record for 2000 was 10 wins and 1 loss. The loss was in the State playoff semi-final game.
Going into our second year, the school realized the importance of the hands-on technique. With that in mind, two more people were added to the weight room. One being a rotating gym teacher for every class, and the other being James Treacy, who is a certified strength coach who has coached with Coach McKenna and is his right arm. Coach McKenna said, “Having Jim with me at Notre Dame is one of the biggest thrills in my life. Being like a brother, trust and believing in each other helps you get through those long days.”
After two years we can say that having a unified strength program has not only brought life back into our athletic programs, but has cut our injuries 75 percent. “Even when injured, our recovery time has improved due to our strength programs,” says Barbara Major, Athletic Director.


Girls’ Basketball

The girls’ basketball team made it to the State final game this year with a 26 and 1 win/loss record. Ann DeMille’s (Head Coach) team lifts all year, whether it’s off-season when the girls are on their own, or in-season, when they lift as a team. Coach DeMille likes the team lifts during the season because the girls push each other in the weight room. She credits in-season lifting as the reason for their end-of-season strength. Coach McKenna requires in-season lifts to get stronger, not to just maintain like other programs. And just to show their work ethic, Coach McKenna reports that athletes like Michelle Campbell, Talia Merlino, Karen Bolster, Danielle Wexler and others were lifting for next year just two days after a heart-breaking 1-point loss in that State Final game.

Boys’ Basketball

The boys’ basketball team made it into the State playoffs this year under first year coach Todd Shellenberger. Shellenberger has also been added to assist at times in the weight room. Coach Shellenberger stated, “I have coached at the college and high school level and the weight room at Notre Dame is one of the finest I have seen.” Both Coach McKenna and Treacy have a true passion for what they do and they have a profound impact on all who enter Donovan’s Den. Not only do they get the players stronger, but they make them better athletes.


Swimmers can lift only during the day because the pool is off campus. One of our swimmers, Bob DeSandre, said, “Lifting at Notre Dame has improved my strength, increased my confidence in my ability to swim at a faster pace and it gives me a mental edge on my competition.” Bob DeSandre was “Swimmer of the Year” in our area. One of the team’s best relays included Mike Choquette, a senior defensive end on the football team, who was another 400 plus in bench and squat.

Girls’ Lifting

One of our proudest points is that our class ratio is 60 percent male and 40 percent female, and during or after school, there just isn’t that “girl-guy” thing. Our students have set their goals and work great as a group. One of the ways we broke through the “girls, it’s OK to lift” barrier was through Lindsey “Yogi” McKenna (Coach McKenna’s daughter), who came to Notre Dame as a junior. She had attended a BFS Clinic 5 years ago, given by Jim Brown. From that point on she followed the BFS system and became an ambassador for female athletes lifting. Now a senior, Lindsey plays field hockey and was a 2000 All-Area softball catcher. She puts up some great numbers: Parallel squat 325 pounds, box squat 400 pounds and a dot drill time of 40 seconds. With her help, and many other great female athletes at Notre Dame, we have smashed the barrier concerning females lifting.


Our track team, both male and female, lifts weights all year. Breaking down the groups into sprinters, distance runners, and throwers gives us the flexibility of training all 150 track and field athletes at different times.


One of the biggest challenges was baseball. One giant step in the right direction was naming Joe Drulis as Head Baseball Coach. Joe also happens to be a football coach, so his knowledge and commitment to the program were already in place. Getting ready for the baseball season, six players had reached the 300 pound bench club: Zack Melker, Dan Czepiga, Harold Grant, Bill Petitto and Don Petito.


The future is unknown, but knowing Coach McKenna and Coach Treacy, they will never rest. They are always looking for ways to make the Notre Dame program stronger.
Coach McKenna often talks about attending Jim Brown’s BFS Clinic and coming away with his dream of a full-time, unified program. He had the program and room mapped out in his head and only needed someone to believe in him and the dream. Only some 15 miles away, Chappy and Elsie Moore had the same dream, but needed support and the “driver”. With Principal Barry Breen’s support, Coach McKenna’s is now living his dream.

Shawn Miller-JR fullback 385 Parallel Squat with Coach Treacy spotting.
Lindsay McKenna and Jarriet Robinson leading a group doing plyometric box jumping.
Mike Ventola JR. line backer doing a 405 lb. Box Squat with Dan Williams spotting.
Zack Melken JR baseball doing SLDL’s the key to increasing speed.
Gary Taylor JR running back Benches with Dan Williams spotting.
A group led by Andrew Morin with Dan Mesday right behind.

Return to Summer 2001 Articles

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