Harrison’s O’Donnell captures Observer Male Athlete of Year

Harrison High School head football coach Mike Hinchcliffe summed it up perfectly when describing his standout quarterback last season, Mike O’Donnell.

“He’s just a special kid,” Hinchcliffe said. “It’s very hard to find a kid like Mike O’Donnell.”

Harrison head baseball coach Jairo Mendez agrees.

“He’s the type of kid who knows what’s best for the team, then goes and does it,” Mendez said. “He’s just a tough competitor.”

And as for Harrison’s boys’ head basketball coach Bill Mullins?

“He has such tenacity and toughness,” Mullins said. “He’s an old school kind of kid, the one who gets the team going.”

But in O’Donnell’s eyes, he’s not doing anything special.

“I just liked playing,” O’Donnell said. “I liked being active and staying busy.”

That he did. O’Donnell left his mark as one of the best all-around athletes in Harrison High School history. And that says a lot, especially when you consider the athletes the school has produced like Ray Lucas and Kevin Hoey.

O’Donnell was the starting quarterback on the Harrison football team. Last season, he helped to turn the Blue Tide from a 3-7 bottom of the pack squad to a 7-3 team that qualified for the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II playoffs for the first time in over a decade.

O’Donnell merely compiled 1,212 yards passing with 15 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He also rushed for 893 yards on the ground in 119 carries and scored eight touchdowns.

On the basketball floor, O’Donnell spearheaded another turnaround, helping the Blue Tide improve to a 17-8 squad. The point guard averaged 9.6 points per game, 5.8 assists per contest, along with three rebounds and three steals.

And on the baseball diamond, O’Donnell was as equally impressive, if not more.

The catcher batted .449 with five home runs and 33 RBI, had 35 hits and scored 19 runs. He had four RBI in a game three times in a five-game span.

Is there any doubt that O’Donnell is the recipient of the 2016-2017 Observer Male Athlete of the Year award?

O’Donnell received the award recently from Observer general manager Robert Pezzolla with several dignitaries on hand to watch the presentation. Former Observer Athlete of the Year Jose Camano (2008-2009) was on hand. Camano served as the assistant coach with the boys’ basketball team last winter.

Incredibly, O’Donnell spoke to his father, Mike, Sr., about receiving the award a few years ago.

“Me and my dad talked about it all the time,” O’Donnell said. “I told him that I wanted to be the next one from Harrison to get the award. It’s a major achievement for me. It’s the best honor I’ve received since I arrived in Harrison High School.”

Growing up, football was the first sport that O’Donnell became accustomed to.

“I would always go to the field with my dad,” O’Donnell said. “He was my coach from Pee Wees to Pop Warner to high school. He was definitely the biggest influence on me. He taught me about what to do and what not to do. All my ability is thanks to him.”

O’Donnell said he was a toddler of perhaps two years old when he first went to a football practice and started playing when he was four years old.

“I couldn’t play in real games, but I was running around the field and such,” O’Donnell said. “I was a running back all the way back then.”

O’Donnell remained a running back until he got to high school. He was first a QB on a team that ran the Wing-T offense that didn’t feature O’Donnell’s talents.

But during junior year, O’Donnell flourished under the new spread attack, which featured a lot of passing.

“It was kind of weird, because when I started, I didn’t have a chance to do anything,” O’Donnell said. “But when the new coaches came in, they knew that I could throw.”

Enter Hinchcliffe, who was a new coach last fall. Hinchcliffe came to Harrison _ his alma mater _ only after an off-field incident forced the former coach to resign just two weeks prior to the opening game.

“I knew what kind of athlete he was when we scouted him,” said Hinchcliffe, who was an assistant at Ridgefield when he took the Harrison job. “When I saw him, I said, ‘Well, at least I have something.’”

Hinchcliffe knew of O’Donnell through O’Donnell’s father.

“I’m friendly with his father for a long time,” said Hinchcliffe, who invited the older O’Donnell to be a member of his coaching staff. “Mike is a natural born leader. I knew that he had tremendous talents. It was easy to see that he was the bridge I needed to the rest of the team. Just one look at his face and you could see that he had the belief in his eyes. I thought the kid could probably mean two wins, maybe three, on his own. He could make chicken salad out of chicken crap.

Added Hinchcliffe, “When the chips were down, you knew that he was going to make the play. You just knew that he was going to do it. You knew he would get the job done.”

O’Donnell downplayed his football prowess.

“Playing running back made me understand being a quarterback,” O’Donnell said. “And being a quarterback just made me a better well rounded player. I was in charge all the time and helped to put the people in the right places. I just had to throw it somewhere near Dustin (Husenovic, who had 38 receptions, eight for touchdowns) and he would catch it.”

Basketball just happened as a fluke.

“I was bored and needed something to do,” said O’Donnell. “I went out for basketball my junior year. I was first on JV and then got moved up.”
Mullins, in his first year like Hinchcliffe, inherited O’Donnell and knew he had his starting point guard.

“I didn’t know anything about him,’ Mullins said. “I just heard he was a good athlete who played three sports. It was a great thing to walk into because he just took over the point guard job. He came to practice every day and practiced hard every day. Being a point guard is a tough position, but he never came out of the game.

Added Mullins, “He’s not a loud kid, not a rah-rah kid. But we knew he’d give us 100 percent and lead by his work ethic. He was the leader because everyone respected his work ethic. It’s hard to get a good point guard. He just got the ball up the floor and gave the ball to others to let them score. He pushed the ball up the court and was the key catalyst. He was also consistent. You knew what you were going to get.”

“I think being the quarterback helped me as a point guard, because I could tell the others where to go and try to get them the ball,” O’Donnell said. “It was all about my ball work.”

In baseball season, O’Donnell just improved on what he had done over the prior two seasons.

“I like playing catcher,” O’Donnell said. “It’s the best thing I do. The catcher is one who has to be involved with every play of the game.”

Mendez liked what O’Donnell produced.

“Having someone like that who knows the game is a huge plus,” Mendez said. “It’s like having another coach on the field. He sees everything and that’s a huge help. He’s also definitely a competitor who hates to lose. He always wants what’s best for the team. You have that toughness and competitiveness, you just can’t teach that.

Added Mendez, “It’s been my pleasure to have coached Mikey for four years. He was enjoyable to have. He progressed every year and that’s because he worked hard.”

O’Donnell is off to New Jersey City University in the fall to study history and eventually would like to become a teacher and a coach. He’s had coach written all over him from the minute he stepped onto the turf at Harrison High. He’s also planning on playing baseball at NJCU next spring.

“Looking back, I can be very happy with myself and my career at Harrison High,” O’Donnell said. “This award means a lot to me.”

THE OBSERVER MALE ATHLETES OF THE YEAR

2002-2003-Hugh MacDonald, Kearny

2003-2004-Steve Armstrong, Nutley

2004-2005-Brian Kapp, Lyndhurst

2005-2006-Andrew Amadeo, Kearny

2006-2007-Lou Ritacco, Nutley

2007-2008-Michael Gross, North Arlington

2008-2009-Jose Camano, Harrison

2009-2010-Peter Santos, North Arlington

2010-2011-Patrick Rono, Lyndhurst

2011-2012-Tyler Krychkowski, North Arlington

2012-2013-A.J. Nocciolo, North Arlington

2013-2014-Danny Cordeiro, North Arlington

2014-2015 P.J. Gencarelli, Belleville

2015-2016 Petey Guerriero, Lyndhurst

2016-2017 Mike O’Donnell, Harrison

Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer