Dave Troiano claims to be as sharp and as passionate as ever in his 35th season as coach of the Wildwood High School girls basketball team.
But the Warriors are pulling a fast one on their coach.
Before each home game, they huddle in the locker room by themselves.
On the road, the players gather together on the court at the end of warmups when he's not looking.
The purpose of these clandestine meetings?
"We dedicate every game to Troiano, just so we can get him his 600th win," Wildwood junior Jessica Freeman said. "We say, 'Let's get this one for Troiano and get him one game closer.' We want to say we were on the team that got him to that milestone."
Troiano, 65, is one win away from the milestone. His career record is 599-290. The Warriors (11-5) play at 5 p.m. Tuesday at Cape May Tech.
Few local girls or boys basketball coaches have been as successful as Troiano and meant as much to their communities. He has led Wildwood to four state titles - a total matched only by St. Augustine Prep boys coach Paul Rodio.
"Wildwood has been very good to me," Troiano said. "I always felt coaching was a way of giving something back. As long as I can contribute, I still want to keep doing it as long as they're willing to have me."
Freeman said the Warriors keep their pregame routine to themselves because they don't want to put any pressure on Troiano.
Freeman epitomizes the coach's tenure. In addition to coaching her, he also coached her mother, Brenda, a 1988 Wildwood graduate. The Warriors won a South Jersey title that season.
"When I was in the sixth grade, all I wanted to do was play basketball for him," said Jessica Freeman, who scored her 1,000th career point earlier this week.
Troiano grew up in Pittsburgh. His family vacationed in Wildwood and he applied for a teaching job at the school after he got his master's degree at Duquesne University.
Troiano never left the resort town. He and wife Carol raised their children - Tracy, 41, and Tony, 39, - there.
"I always felt Wildwood would be a great place to bring up my own kids," Troiano said. "I just put in an application. Things really worked out for me."
Troiano began his coaching career as an assistant to Wildwood boys coach Bernie McCracken. Troiano took over the girls program for the 1977-78 season.
He can be demanding. His voice booms across the gym and can grab the attention of any player. Freeman said there's no joking around with Troiano the day before a game.
"What you see is what you get with him," said former player and long-time assistant Teresa Polini-Cunniff. "He gets the most of out of his players, and his players really respect him. Everybody is equal and he'll do anything for anybody."
But Troiano has mellowed.
"When kids come back they tell the present group, 'You're lucky. He's mellowed,' " Troiano said. "The present kids say, 'If he's mellowed, I'd hate to see what he was like.' "
Troiano and the Polini-Cunniff-led Warriors won their first state title in 1991. Troiano still remembers seeing Polini-Cunniff as a fifth-grader, dribbling a basketball around town as she ran errands for her mother.
The Wildwood girls became one of the most high-profile high school teams in the state from 2000-2002 as Monica Johnson sparked the Warriors to three straight state titles.
The 5-foot-3 Johnson is one of the most exciting players to ever play in the Cape-Atlantic League. She dazzled fans and brought crowds to their feet with her ability to dribble through defenses. She finished with 3,173 points - the most of any local player. The Warriors played all over the state, including showcase events normally reserved only for boys teams.
"During the Monica era, no matter who we played, no matter how good they were, there was never a game where I didn't think we didn't have a shot of winning," Troiano said.
Some coaches might have walked away after Johnson graduated in 2002. Wildwood hasn't reached that level since.
But Troiano stayed and still coaches with the same intensity whether he's in an arena or a half-filled gym. He does this even though he retired as a teacher six years ago. He still sweats during games while walking the sidelines.
"I'm using the same amount of deodorant I've always used," he said with a laugh. "After a loss, I can't wait to get back into the gym and correct the mistakes we made during that game. When you have to look at your watch during practice, then it's time to get out. But I haven't had any of those feelings."
Longtime coaches often talk of spending more time at home than with their families. The truth is their families sometimes prefer them in a gym.
Troiano came home from a game this week to find his wife sitting in his favorite chair watching "The Bachelor" on television.
"She said I have 10 more minutes of this show and then you can have the TV," Troiano said with a laugh.
Troiano said he really only felt like stepping down once in his 35 seasons. The moment came after Wildwood lost to Butler in the 2003 state Group I championship.
"I felt like I let the town down," he said.
Carol talked him out of resigning.
Sometimes a coach's family knows best.
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