By Rob Centorani Staff Writer
The Daily Star
---- — ONEONTA – Brad Zeh described the mood as somber. Sophomore Albert Odero used words such as emotional and speechless. Senior Mariah Ruff said the news was devastating.
Jerry Mackey, the passionate coach who in many ways is the face of Oneonta High athletics, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis earlier this week.
“It was pretty quiet in there, especially for those seniors,” Zeh said of team dinner held Wednesday night when Mackey broke the news to the Yellowjackets boys basketball team. “They’ve been in the program for six years and when you’re with somebody who has put as much time and effort into this program as Jerry has, it was a pretty somber mood in there.”
MS is a degenerative disease that affects the central nervous system and impacts muscle function. There is no cure, but it can be treated through medication.
Mackey, a Whitney Point and Hartwick College alum, took over the OHS boys basketball program from Zeh’s father, Bob, in the late 1990s. He’s guided the Yellowjackets to sectional titles in 2002, 2003, 2007 and 2008, along with a Southern Tier Athletic Conference championship in 2001.
When Helen Sandford retired from coaching the OHS girls soccer team in 2003, Mackey took over. He steered OHS to sectional titles in 2004, 2011, 2012 and this past season. The Yellowjackets advanced the Class A state final in 2004, the Class B state final in 2012 and won the program’s first state championship this past fall, with a 2-1 victory over Marcellus in the Class B final at Cortland State. OHS has also won the past three STAC championships under Mackey.
“Obviously, there’s devastation,” said Ruff, who shared Class B Player of the Year honors in soccer with teammate Taryn More, “but in some ways it’s a positive thing because he’s a fighter and everybody knows that. He’s a great guy. It was one of the worst things that could have happened to such a great person, but he’s going to fight through it and we’re all behind him. He knows that.”
Mackey did not coach in Oneonta’s 60-49 sectional semifinal victory over visiting Susquehanna Valley on Friday.
Brad Zeh, who’ll continue to take over for Mackey in Saturday’s Section Four Class B title game at 7 p.m. at the Broome County Arena, said he doesn’t expect Mackey to return this season.
“He’s been advised to shut it down totally,” said Zeh, Oneonta’s junior varsity coach the past 14 seasons. “No practice, no games or anything like that.”
Odero said the players were surprised when Mackey delivered the news.
“We didn’t think it could happen,” he said. “We just thought it was a bad flu, but it got serious quickly (when the team found out he had MS).”
Zeh and Odero said Mackey didn’t leave before giving his 17-2 squad some advice heading into Saturday.
“After Jerry broke the news to the kids, he gave a great speech about believing,” Zeh said. “After he spoke, you could tell the kids were believing even more.”
Added Odero: “He told us to play our hearts out. He told us not to rush anything, to just play well. I feel extra motivation. We have to win for him.”
Zeh also said Thursday that Oneonta’s leading scorer, junior Jordan Gutierrez, will not be in uniform for the third straight game. Mackey said following OHS’ 54-52 sectional quarterfinal win over Waverly, that Gutierrez had been suspended indefinitely.
Gutierrez is averaging 22.9 points.
As for facing a 19-0 Norwich squad, Zeh said: “They’re a good team and we have to play well to win, but we don’t have to play out of our minds. If everybody just does a little bit more than they’re used to and remembers to check out on every box out, to attack shooters and run them off the three-point line, then we’ll have a chance. We don’t have to beat them three out of five times, we only have to beat them once.”
Norwich, which has beaten the Yellowjackets by seven and 23 points this season, has four double-digit scorers led by Mike Sutton at 14.1. Zan Stewart (11.3), Mike Oralls (10.6) and Storm Cook (10.5) also average in double figures.
Odero leads OHS at 14.1 points per game. Seniors Paul Bischoff and George Foti are averaging 10.7 and 8.2 points, respectively.
Rob Centorani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 607-432-1000, ext. 209.