By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
The crux of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” as interpreted by literary scholars since it was penned 130 years ago is the inner battle between good and evil. That, in each of us, lies a constant struggle between morality and animal instinct.
By day, Dean Kolonich, an Upper Township resident, is a model student at St. Augustine Prep. He excels at his studies, carrying a grade-point average that nears 4.0, and as a senior who carries himself with class, dignity and humility, he is the type of student that professors point to as an example for freshmen and sophomores to someday hope to mature into. He’s the type of young man a coach might like his daughter to take to the spring formal.
But when the lights come on at LaRosa Field on Friday nights, however, Kolonich turns into a menacing inside linebacker who leads one of the best defenses in South Jersey.
“It’s Jekyll and Hyde, in a good way. He’s the perfect kid when he’s off the field, but when he puts the equipment on he hits the switch and he’s a different kid,” said Hermits assistant coach Tiger Minetti. “Right after we have mass, grab something to eat and have a walk-through you start to see that change. When everybody is hanging out before the game in the wrestling room you start to see that side of him coming out. You’ll walk by him, and he’ll still be the same person, but you know there’s a lot more going on inside of him. It’s like a duck on a pond, under the water everything is moving a mile a minute. He has that aggression and desire to be the best he can be and do the most for us.”
“We have a bunch of kids like that. They are the nicest kid in the world until you put a football helmet on them,” added head coach Mark Reardon. “But that’s kind of how St. Augustine is. You walk around the halls and you see these kids and they are really bright and dressed up, but you put a lacrosse stick in their hand or a basketball, or you put a football helmet on them and all of a sudden that switch flips and they are different cats — in a good way. Not that they are nasty in the way of being dirty players, they are just tough kids. They are at this school for a reason, and Dean is a prototype for that.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Kolonich’s favorite NFL player is Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. He even bears a resemblance to the All-Pro.
“I love the mentality of having to be responsible (for the defensive calls). Getting downhill is one of my favorite things to do. Linebackers are known for hard hits. I don’t mind cleaning things up. I love when a running back thinks a lane is open and doesn’t see me coming — and you turn his whole night upside down,” Kolonich said. “Luke Kuechly is definitely my favorite linebacker. I work out at Athlete’s Arbor (in Linwood) and they call me ‘Luke Kuechly’ over there. I just love his mentality and the way he gets after it.”
Next in line
The Hermits have had a string of outstanding inside linebackers, most recently Bill Bailey, also an Upper Township resident, and Jim Brady of Mullica Township. Bailey graduated from Prep in 2014 after having a solid senior year in 2014, and Brady was named the Press of Atlantic City Player of the Year after leading St. Augustine to a 9-1 record and a Cape-Atlantic League championship. Kolonich has stepped in to fill their shoes quite nicely.
Through the first three games of the 2016 season — all wins by the Hermits — Kolonich had more than 30 tackles and registered double-digit tackles in two of those games. After allowing 28 points in the first half of the season opener to Malvern Prep, the Hermits allowed just 26 points in the next 10 quarters.
“I really looked up to Bill Bailey and Jim Brady. Sometimes you had to tell Brady to slow down a little bit. You never had to tell him to go faster because he was always going a thousand miles an hour out on the field,” Kolonich said. “Jim’s a great guy. I learned a lot from Jim. You would see him at lunch and he would say, ‘Dean, come on, we’re going to watch some film.’ I would said, ‘OK.’ I never questioned it. And that’s what I do now with the guys. I’ll grab (sophomore linebacker Joe) Bonczek and say, ‘hey, let’s go watch some film.’”
“As a freshman he got to see the field a little bit, probably had about 25 or 30 tackles and played in maybe a half dozen games. His sophomore year, in a scrimmage against Paul VI, he picked off a pass and ran it back 96 yards. It was at that moment that we said we have a really good linebacker. There were two good linebackers ahead of him at the time in Bill Bailey and Jim Brady, but we said we have to find a way to get this kid on the field because he’s going to be a really good player,” Minetti said. “You think that when you lose a guy like Brady, you wonder if a guy like Dean can step in and replace him. But you know in the back of your mind the answer is going to be yes. We wish we had five more of him. We ask Dean to do a lot, and he always wants to do more. Every time he steps onto the field he wants to prove that he’s better than people think he is.”
Along with Kolonich, Bonczek, Quinn Dolan and Josh Daids form one of the best linebacking crews in South Jersey. And guys such as True Robinson and Paul Meduri help make up a pretty formidable defensive line. Prep also has some outstanding athletes in the defensive back, such as star running back Kyle Dobbins, Zeke Ennis, and Shamere Collins.
Reardon said Kolonich and some of the other Hermits may go largely unnoticed among fans and local media, but not to the coaching staff. The coaches know they have some serious talent on the defensive side.
“He didn’t fly under the radar to us. He was as productive as anybody on our defense. Sometimes kids get accolades, and they deserve them, but other kids are performing at a very high level and don’t. But within our program, Dean had an awesome year last year. He’s really developed. He’s invested in the weight room and every year he’s gotten better and better. He’s a joy to be around, too,” Reardon said. “As a sophomore, we started seeing signs of him becoming a good player for us. He was still a little undersized, but he ran really well and he was physical. His junior year, he really took off. We ask him to do a lot. Our inside backers are responsible for a lot of our calls and that can be a lot on a young kid, but he picked it up and has done a great job.”
Reardon said what makes Kolonich such a good linebacker — in much the same way Bailey and Brady were — is his toughness and his lateral quickness. He may not blow anybody away in timed runs, but he has what coaches like to call “football speed.”
“His best attributes are his toughness and his quickness. He’s not a flat speed guy, but he plays way faster than his 40 (yard dash) time might indicate. There are a lot of guys who don’t play to their speed. You might see them run a 40, then you see them play and you’re like, ‘is that the same kid?’ Dean’s not like that. He flies around to the ball,” Reardon said. “We have some kids who are really versatile, so it allows us to do some different things, but you do need that cornerstone guy. That guy who can play the middle linebacker position. You have to have that guy year in and year out, and Dean has filled that role for us. He handles things very well. He’s a mature kid and his parents have done an unbelievable job raising him. The moment is never too big for him, and he makes plays. You are confident that if you are somewhere near the right call, he’s going to make a play for you.”
Kolonich said he’s always wanted to be one of those guys who makes a name for himself at St. Augustine.
“I always heard about St. Augustine. I remember being in seventh grade and reading about coach Reardon and coach (Charlie) Roman. My dad really influenced me. He didn’t push me, it was always my decision, but I knew it was something I wanted to do,” Kolonich said. “I knew it was going to be a sacrifice leaving friends who were going to Ocean City, but I still have friends there and I’ve met some incredible people here. I remember watching Calvin Cass when I was in eighth grade and he was just tearing up the field. And I thought, who doesn’t want to be a part of this? Then Lamont (Harris) came in. The tradition of hard work gets passed down year after year.”
Some student-athletes are simply that. Students until 3 p.m., then athletes after that. The great ones find ways to be just as influential as a student as they are as an athlete. For Kolonich, the student part always comes first. He may have enough talent to play football at the next level, but he’s not counting on that to be his life’s work. He said he wants to get into the medical field, and based on his GPA and the way he carries himself in the hallways at St. Augustine, coaches said they are confident he will have a tremendously successful future, no matter what career path he chooses.
“He’s a good kid. He’s one of those kids everybody gravitates to. He has a circle of friends, and not just football players. He’s just a leader, whether it’s on the field, in the classroom, in the weight room. He’s a big-time leader in the weight room and he’s always motivating people,” Minetti said. “In the classroom, he wants to get into the medical field, and that’s difficult to get into. His father was a good football player and has done very well for himself in the state police. Dean is a goal-oriented kid. He has goals and tries to achieve them, and when he does he resets them even higher and continues to push for those new goals.”
“He’s a tremendous example to our younger kids of somebody who comes in, sticks to the system and really develops and becomes a really good player on the field and a great human being off the field,” Reardon said. “The most important thing for me is that he’s as good off the field as he is on it. He has a great future ahead of him.”
“There’s a sign above the door when you come in that says ‘Enter as boys and leave as men to serve.’ I can’t even explain how absolutely true that is,” Kolonich said. “You’re going to get that hard-work mentality here. That translates into the classroom, when you are at home studying, helping your parents at home — those are all things that are expected of you here.”
One thing Kolonich doesn’t expect is to get a lot of headlines for what he does on the field. Those are generally reserved for guys such as Dobbins, who routinely puts up 200-yard rushing games. But, that comes with the territory when you are a middle linebacker. He knows there is plenty of admiration on the practice field on Monday afternoons after a 12-tackle performance and a Hermits win.
“Of course, it crosses everybody’s mind. But you don’t mind seeing your teammates doing well,” Kolonich said. “We wouldn’t be who we are without everybody. If we lose one guy, we become a different team. And I know they feel the same way about me. Appreciation goes on in practice more than in the Saturday or Sunday paper.”
Chances are, though, that if he keeps putting up the kind of performances like he has the past year and a half, there will be some recognition coming his way.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN