Anne Marie Mercado was the athletic director at St. Joseph Academy for six years before moving on to a new position as Dean of Student Life this past summer. (South Jersey Impact photo/Sully)

Staff Writer

St. Joseph Academy in Hammonton has always had a strong athletic program, spearheaded by the school’s football team, which has won more than 300 games under current coach Paul Sacco, a legendary figure in South Jersey high school football.
But in recent years some other programs have really done well, too, including field hockey, softball and boys basketball. The field hockey team won 17 games last year and the softball team, skippered by Les Olson, won 19 games this past spring and in 2021 had one of its best seasons ever, racking up 27 wins to go along with a sectional championship.
The boys basketball team, under coach Paul Rodio — whose father, also named Paul, is one of the state’s winningest coaches at St. Augustine Prep — won 19 games a year ago and made the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament semifinals, and in the covid-shortened 2020 season the Wildcats went 12-2.
The school has a new athletic director, Tim Fingerhut, in place as it entered the 2022-2023 school year, but a lot of the recent success was formulated by Anne Marie Mercado, who spent six years in the athletic director position and saw three sons go through the school as football and baseball players. She’s moving on to a new position in the school, Dean of Student Life, as the academy continues to improve and expand after nearly closing down a few years ago when the Catholic Diocese of Camden dropped the school as an affiliation.
“We have a great support staff, from our Board of Trustees to Mr. (Steve) Cappuccio (Head of School), our staff is wonderful. We’re all on the same page and we all work hard together. I think we all have the same common goals in mind in terms of what we want to achieve as a school, from academics to athletics. On the athletic side, we’re focused on player development and creating opportunities to play at the next level,” Mercado said. “Les has done a great job with the softball program. I can’t thank him enough for the opportunities he gives the girls. Last year, we had two girls sign for Division I. Our baseball coach, Nick Core, has done a great job with the boys.”
Mercado has a long history with athletics, as she was a three-sport star at Cumberland Regional High School, playing field hockey, basketball and softball, before going on to play field hockey at Boston College. She eventually also played softball during her college athletic career, got a masters degree in administration and briefly played for Team U.S.A. in field hockey.
Her career also included a stop at the Y.A.L.E. School in Northfield, and she’s also coached field hockey at Ocean City and Schalick high schools. Her athletic genes certainly were passed on to her sons, who all have been standout athletes at St. Joseph Academy. Brock now plays baseball at UNC-Asheville and Cohl, a 2022 graduate, took his talents to Boston College. Ty is still a part of St. Joseph Academy, and Mercado’s husband, Dan, is a New Jersey State Trooper.
“I try to let them just be students, but it’s good because they have a relationship with the kids and that allows me to have a better relationship with some of the kids,” Mercado said of her sons. “Being at a small school where I’m also teaching, I’m with the kids every day and see them out in their sports. I get to build relationships with the kids and see what we need and where we need to grow.”
Being an athletic director of a small private school isn’t necessarily a glamorous job. There are all kinds of things Mercado has needed to do throughout the years, including field and gym cleanup, fund raising, trying to reschedule games on rainy days — if you can think of it, chances are, Mercado has done it the past six years. She also tries to stay on top of what kids are doing academically and staying in contact with a host of college coaches to try to help get her students recruited.
“I love the kids. Game Day is my favorite day because you can see all the hard work they have put in. That’s the icing on the cake, watching all the hard work you’ve put in behind the scenes — nobody has to know about that, it’s for the kids and for the school. Anything I can do to help, I want to be available,” she said. “I think the most important thing is player development and letting kids know there are opportunities out there, whether it be Division I, DII, DIII or juco (junior college). I try to stay on top of all the athletes academically to figure out where they are, what their goals are. It’s good to get to know each kid on a personal level so you can help them along.”
Having three athletic boys has meant the Mercado family has been on the go for pretty much the last 20 years. Anne Marie said life is very hectic, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“For me, my hobbies are my kids. It was meant for me to have three boys and be able to watch them play sports. In the summer, I travel with them and get to watch them play baseball. They enjoy it, my husband and I enjoy it,” Mercado said. “It is a total team effort, from my husband and I down to our three kids. ‘OK, where is your uniform? Throw it in the wash. Whose clothes are in the dryer? Who is picking up dinner tonight?’ We have to work together. But, I don’t know life any differently. I think growing up playing sports and being on the run all the time, and my mom and dad doing all those things for me, kind of makes it natural.”
Those organizational skills built up over two decades of raising a family certainly served her well during her time as athletic director.
“The number one thing you need in this job is organization,” she said. “And communication; being able communicate with fellow ADs, and my coaches in terms of what our expectations are and where they need to be. And you have to be able to develop plans with the coaches to achieve those expectations. For me, it can get crazy so I need that organization. Am I trying to reschedule games right now or am I going to work on lesson plans? Am I texting other ADs back? I just have to use my time wisely.”
Mercado, an Upper Township resident, said the students of St. Joseph Academy mirror her work ethic. The Wildcats’ athletes don’t make excuses, they just get to work. The school nearly closed a few years ago, it lost the use of the football field the Wildcats were using in the center of town and the football team had to play all of its games on the road one season, the basketball teams have been without a full-sized gym. One thing after another has threatened to derail the St. Joseph Academy sports programs, but the Wildcats just keep surviving — and thriving. The school got some huge financial donations from alumni and a new artificial turf field is being built. There are even plans to continue to add sports, such as lacrosse, in the coming school year.
“These last two years — and with covid putting a monkey wrench into it all — these kids, the adversity they face, the resiliency it teaches them and they growth they see from it; not having a home football field and those kids being on the road every weekend, basketball having limited dates at Hammonton Middle School. People don’t realize the adversity these kids face, but at the same time they build character and grow stronger,” Mercado said. “With the obstacles we face, they realize there are bigger things in life and with hard work and that ‘Gotta Believe’ mentality, we can get through all of it. It has been challenging, but our kids and coaches rise to the occasion. Nothing holds us back. I think (the challenges we face) give us that grit.”
Mercado said St. Joseph Academy, as small as it is with only about 200 students, will always be the underdog, and it reminds her of another underdog story the school draws strength from, especially being only about a half hour from Philadelphia.
“It kind of reminds me of that Rocky IV movie where he goes to Russia, he has nothing to train with and the Russian guy has all that technology and equipment to help him succeed,” she explained. “Rocky is out running in a foot of snow, he has log on his back — our situation reminds me of that. It teaches us that hard work and drive that we need. That’s kind of my analogy of it.”
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