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Remembering a Legend: Southern Honors Kathy Snyder

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MANAHAWKIN - One by one, they walked up into the bleachers in the gym at Southern Regional on Tuesday night, serving as the living, breathing legacy of a coach who was never about impressive numbers on a piece of paper or a Hall of Fame plaque.

More than 200 women who played for the Rams during the legendary 35-year tenure of Kathy Snyder came to say goodbye in person one last time to their old field hockey and basketball coach during a memorial on Tuesday night. From players on this season’s team to women in their 50s, from mothers carrying children to girls who were children themselves only a few years ago, they all shared similar stories of a woman who deeply impacted their lives.

A group of more than 200 current and former players was part of the crowd that gathered to honor Southern Regional coaching legend Kathy Snyder on Tuesday night. (Photo by Scott Stump)

Snyder died in her sleep at 58 years old on Jan. 24, leaving behind Ken Snyder, her husband of 27 years, stepson Brett Snyder, the couple’s three children, Brandon, Erin and Morgan, one grandchild and a grieving Southern community.

“When asked what I planned on majoring in college, my response was, ‘Being Kathy Snyder,’’’ said Jenna Lombardo, a standout on the 2006 Southern field hockey team.

More than a thousand people came to celebrate Snyder at her second home, the court where she spent two-thirds of her life and the de facto playroom for her three children in their youth.

“There really is no better place to remember our mom than the place where we all grew up,’’ her daughter, Erin Snyder, said at the memorial. “We are so glad we got to share our mother with you.”

From her beginnings as a star athlete dubbed “The Blonde Bomber” at Shore Regional in the early 1970s to her legendary tenure at Southern in which she won a combined 857 games between field hockey and basketball, Snyder’s core values were always there. A fierce competitor and a champion for gender equality in sports with a generous heart underneath the hard exterior, Snyder shaped a generation of women at Southern as a coach, a physical education teacher and a driver’s education instructor.

“She came into our lives at such a vulnerable age and made a life-long impact on all of us,’’ said Candace McCallum, a star on the 1994-95 basketball team. “She was there to push us to tears and then offer a shoulder to cry on when we didn’t think we could go any further.”

Unforgettable from the Start

Before Snyder became a coach who led the Rams to 547 wins, 11 division titles and a sectional championship in basketball as well as 310 wins, eight division titles and a Shore Conference Tournament championship in field hockey, she was a star athlete herself at Shore Regional.

“She was larger than life,’’ said Nancy Williams, a legend in her own right and Snyder’s former coach.

Snyder was first-team All-Shore in field hockey, basketball and track for the Blue Devils back when she was known as Kathy Leslie. She was a state high jump champion and a darling of the sportswriters. One headline after she helped the Blue Devils beat Brick in basketball to win the Shore Conference title simply said, “Kathy Did It.”

Her toughness and crackling personality were also fully formed as a 17-year-old. Williams had taught her the then-innovative Fosbury flop in the high jump, which she used to win a state championship. She also used it to show that she would not take a backseat to anyone just because she was a female at a time when girls’ sports were often disrespected.

“One day I set the bar to five feet, four inches, and our athletic director came in screaming  at me,’’ Williams said. “He said, ‘You can’t let her jump backwards.’ I said, ‘Why not?’ He flatly said, ‘Because she’s a girl.’ The words no sooner came out of his mouth when Kathy took off, jumped over the bar and me, jumped out of the pit and glared at him. He turned around, left the gym, and it was never brought up again.”

Snyder starred in four sports at what is now The College of New Jersey, did her student teaching at Red Bank Regional, and then was immediately hired by Southern, which quickly saw the confidence in her that many athletes for the Rams over the years would recognize. Snyder’s good friend, Sue Sharkey, was on the first basketball team that Snyder ever coached in 1982, and by that time she was well aware of Snyder’s aura before she became a legend.

“She just exuded confidence,’’ Sharkey said. “You’d probably say now, she’s got swag. I was 12 years old (when they first met), and I just knew I wanted some of that.”

Legendary Career

When Sharkey began her career with the Rams, the girls basketball team was shoved off into the middle school gym for practices and games. By the time she graduated, they had their own locker room and used the high school gym because Snyder was not going to let the girls be treated like second-class citizens. Sharkey went on to serve as an assistant under Snyder in field hockey and basketball, and both of her daughters played for her.

As the wins piled up and the legend grew, Snyder’s presence on the sideline became easily recognizable. Her piercing voice could be heard through the din of a roaring crowd while she was in her customary stance on one knee on the sideline. A generation of players can still remember her voice echoing off the gym wall as she uttered signature phrases like “Suck it up!” and “News flash: Life’s not fair, get over it!”

She called all her players by their last names only, and they returned the favor by simply calling her “Snyder.”

“People used to ask, ‘Does she even know your first names?” McCallum said.

“If you were around a hockey field or a basketball court between 1994 and 1998, you probably heard the coach yelling, ‘Naughton!’ the entire game,’’ said former Rams athlete Jess Naughton. “Sometimes I think she even yelled my name while I was sitting on the bench, and I had to remind her that I wasn’t even in the game. I went to bed hearing that name.

“I learned that it was those that she truly believed in that got yelled at the most. This was her way of saying, I know you can do better, and I’m going to prove it to you.”

When the yelling stopped after Naughton wrapped up her senior basketball season, Snyder sent her a personal note.

“In it she wrote ‘Jess, you’ve added so much to my life as a coach and as a person, and I would’ve felt honored to have a daughter like you,’’’ Naughton said at the memorial. “That was the greatest compliment in the eight seasons I played for you, and for that I deeply thank you. I pray I hear your voice one more time when I go to sleep.”

Members of teams from the 1980s to 2014 spoke in remembrance of Southern head coach Kathy Snyder, who died at 58 years old on Jan. 24.

Snyder also made sure her voice was the only one that would be heard at games, encouraging her girls to treat opponents and officials with respect. She would handle the rest.

“There were times during the Toms River North games where we would look at each other and think, ‘Did she really just say that to him?’’’ McCallum recalled about Snyder laying into referees. “They tried to keep her in the coaching box a few times, and you could imagine how that went over.”

Her competitiveness was legendary, as she would sometimes yank her basketball players right out of class during the day and bring them to the gym because she had come up with a new play or strategy and wanted to see it in action. Her teams earned respect, which was evidenced by all the varsity jackets in the crowd on Tuesday night from rivals like the three Toms River schools, Barnegat, Central, and more.

The hard shell had a sweet center, though, as many girls can remember lunch money materializing out of nowhere or a new pair of sneakers for an athlete in need appearing in a locker without Snyder saying a word. Former player Stephanie Reiser from the 2000 basketball team recalled the team toilet-papering her house and finding out she knew about it all along and just didn’t want to break up the fun. Another year, she got wind that the players were planning a stealth mission to decorate Toms River East’s field with Southern paraphernalia in advance of a big game, and she loaded up the team in her big blue conversion van and joined in.

The rough edges also began to be sanded down by the birth of her granddaughter, Waverly. The members of this year’s field hockey team knew Friday’s practice would end early and Saturday’s practice would be easy when Waverly was in town for a visit.

She was able to effortlessly switch from demanding taskmaster to empathetic surrogate mother. Jodie Davis, one of the players on her 1994 basketball team, got in a serious car accident the night before the Rams were set to play rival Toms River North in the state tournament. She ended up with10 stitches in her head and her mother broke her leg. Snyder somehow knew exactly when she was getting to school that day and was there to comfort her.

“She was there to greet me and make sure I was OK as well as my mom,’’ Davis said before smiling. “And to make sure I could play.”

The toughness that Snyder preached was something she also practiced. In 2006, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, yet continued to coach. She would schedule treatments during free periods at school. During field hockey games, she would casually walk behind the dugout near the field and vomit from her treatments while no one was looking.

“I think God knew he had to take Snyder in her sleep because she would’ve fought him off and won if she had been awake,’’ Reiser said.

Almost nothing could keep her from the sideline. Sharkey can distinctly remember Sept. 19, 1989, because it was her first and only varsity coaching victory while serving as Snyder’s assistant.

“That was the day Brandon was born,’’ Sharkey said. “I thought I might get a second win a few days later, but Kathy was already back.”

It’s that type of resilience that has particularly helped the Mansuy family. Raymond Mansuy, the husband of Snyder’s longtime assistant and best friend, Paula Mansuy, was buried at 59 years old only three days before Snyder died. For 30 years, Paula was by Snyder’s side, helping her bring bagels to school every morning, trying to organize Snyder’s cluttered office, helping her technophobic friend with computers, and making sure reporters knew about Snyder’s win totals and accomplishments because Snyder never kept track of things like that.

“I still can’t even begin to wrap my mind around the events of these past two weeks,’’ said Jamie Mansuy, the couple’s only child. “It’s still just all so surreal. (Snyder was) a second mother to me.”

Throughout a memorial that lasted 2 ½ hours and also included songs by the school choir and a video tribute to her life, Snyder’s spirit was vibrantly alive. When Brett Snyder’s final prayer for his stepmother was over, the 200-plus women in the audience proud to call her their coach gathered in the bleachers to form a living testimonial to Snyder, her voice still echoing in their heads all these years later.

“Please continue to watch all of us,” Jamie Mansuy said. “And for the love of God, please try to keep your voice down up there.”

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