By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
When Dave Walsh was approached 10 years ago by then-North Arlington High School Principal Bob Kinloch about becoming the head boys’ basketball coach at his alma mater, Walsh didn’t know what to think.
After all, Walsh had spent most of his time as a coach on the collegiate level, with stops at Upsala, Montclair State, Rutgers-Newark and finally William Paterson.
“Bob called me and said he needed a coach,” Walsh said. “It was my alma mater. It was the first place I ever coached. I was a volunteer coach at NA. I had a chance to get back in the high school game. It re-energized me.”
Walsh remained as the Vikings’ head coach for the last decade, until last week, when he decided to step down.
“I had a lot of fun, but it’s time to move on,” Walsh said. “Our job was to be competitive every year. I think that’s what we did. We were in every game and other coaches knew that if they were coming to play North Arlington, it was going to be a battle and certainly no walk in the park.”
Although Walsh said it wasn’t the primary reason for his resignation, he did admit that recent life-altering events aided in him stepping down.
Plain and simple, Walsh is battling colon cancer.
“I went for a colonoscopy on Feb. 18 and on Feb. 25, I was being operated on,” Walsh said.
Doctors removed nine centimeters of Walsh’s colon through a labroscopic procedure.
“Chop and reattach,” Walsh said.
However, three spots were also spotted on Walsh’s liver.
“That was the beginning of the battle,” Walsh said. “I missed one game, our state playoff game. I was home three days after the surgery.”
But Walsh has been enduring a regimen of chemotherapy.
“I’m currently in my fourth cycle,” Walsh said. “I have 12 cycles to go through. It’s general maintenance stuff. But as I go through this, it’s going to be really tough at night for me to have enough energy.”
Doctors have told Walsh that his cancer is “very treatable.”
“Unfortunately, with my diagnosis, I have to worry about getting treated,” Walsh said.
Of course, Walsh is worried about his health, but he said he might have stepped away even if he wasn’t diagnosed with colon cancer.
“I liked being there at my school,” said Walsh, who is a teacher in the East Orange school district full-time. “I was able to develop a program. But after doing the same thing, it sort of grows on you. After being the head coach for so long, I want someone else to make the decisions. It grows old.”
Walsh said that being a head coach at the NJSIAA Group I enrollment level is always a struggle.
“You don’t know when you’re going to be good. The spokes are never in the wheel at the same time. There’s a limited amount of kids in the school to begin with.”
But Walsh enjoyed building the Vikings’ program.
“The year before I got there, they won five games,” Walsh said. “I got there and we won 15. We changed the culture of the program. We had kids who were excited about being there and wanted to learn and wanted to win. They were a hungry group of kids.”
Walsh said that he will miss coaching at his alma mater.
“The best part for me was the pre-game planning,” Walsh said. “I liked getting ready for a game. I liked seeing the kids get better. I’ll miss all of that. But this is the right time for a new challenge.”
Walsh said that he enjoyed coaching the North Arlington players, guys like Peter Santos and Tyler Krychkowski, who became 1,000-point scorers and were both named as Observer Male Athlete of the Year.
“It was a great group of kids,” Walsh said. “They always played hard and gave their all. We were in almost every game we played. We were limited with what we could do, but we worked off the strengths we had.”
Walsh said that he will always remember his first practice as the head coach.
“I had a group of kids who didn’t know me and I didn’t know them,” Walsh said. “I didn’t know what to expect. But we had the hardest practice for a two-hour shot. I figured that if these kids could do this every day, play with that kind of high energy, then we’re going to win games. I didn’t care what happened before. Those kids came to play.
Added Walsh, “And that’s what we did all the time. North Arlington kids come to play.
The teams I had played hard. They were representing the school and the town as a team. Individually, they played hard for themselves. It was that first practice that stood out. I’ll never forget that.”
Walsh doesn’t know what comes next.
“For me, it’s the right time for a new challenge,” Walsh said. “But I have a lot of other things going on now.”
First and foremost, Walsh’s focus is on getting healthy.
“I don’t have a lot of options,” Walsh said. “It has to come first.”
During his tenure at NA, Walsh was known for being a great coach who got his players to overachieve and fear no obstacles. That’s the way Dave Walsh has to approach this battle. Fear nothing. Overcome the obstacles. If Walsh can achieve in life what he did as a coach, then cancer will be just another opponent on the road of life.