LINDEN, NJ - Anthony Drejaj has been all about taking part in challenges throughout his life in the game of basketball. He also knows his latest challenge ahead features taking over a basketball program that featured a legend leading the way, in taking over the reins of the Linden Tigers boys basketball program.
Drejaj was approved as the new head coach of one of the most storied basketball programs in Linden on Tuesday, July 24 at a Board of Education meeting.
Drejaj said , “I wanted this challenge, that is the way I’ve been my whole life; I have never run from a challenge and I see this as another challenge in my life.”
Drejaj, a teacher at Linden High School for the past five years, had been an assistant coach with the program for the past nine seasons prior to becoming head coach.
He replaces Phil Colicchio, who stepped down on June 21, 2018 to take the Elizabeth boys basketball head coaching job. Colicchio spent the past 21 seasons at the helm of the Linden Tigers.
Drejaj also had words of praise for his predecessor, saying he was taught by Colicchio and learned a decent amount of important qualities of the game of basketball, even more than his playing days.
Drejaj said, “The time under Coach Colicchio made me understand how important it is to coach each and every player and get everything we can from our players on the team, [That includes how] to play as hungry as you possibly can and confident, regardless of talent level.”
"Like Coach Colicchio said, The hardest transition is going to be moving 12 inches over to the next seat [on the bench]. The game is still the game,” Drejaj said.
Coach Drejaj graduated from Seton Hall Prep in 2002 and brought his game of basketball to the collegiate level at St. Louis University, where he graduated from in 2006. He did not stop his days as a player there, as he played four seasons overseas in Iceland, Kosovo, Jordan and Tunisia. It also included the Kosovo National Team.
Drejaj said, “Basketball is basketball everywhere [you go]. It is played slightly different in some parts of the world and in different parts of New Jersey. The basics are being taught and learned, players who learn the basics help the team succeed.”
“I’ve played basketball with guys who did not speak a lot of English and we were still able to communicate and still learned that we had to play defense in every possession. Getting the ball to the right spots to succeed, to give us an opportunity to win the game,” he added.
Throughout Drejaj’s tenure with the team, Linden won six sectional championships (2011, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017) and three Group 4 State Championships (2014, 2016, 2017). He plans on getting with his group of players to prepare for the season ahead.
“No matter who he coaches, no matter the team he has, if you lose the second-leading scorer in school history [Tavon Jones finished with 1,766 career points], it’s hard to replace,” Drejaj said.
“We have a talented group of kids that are willing to work hard, they have showed it in the past. They have been through it with us in practices through the big games and they have seen what it is like and what it takes to win those big games,” he added.
The Tigers finished last season with a 22-7 record, losing to Newark East Side 57-52 on March 5 in the NJSIAA North Jersey, Section 2, Group 4 Sectional Final.
The Union County Conference Watchung Division is a loaded division for the upcoming season, featuring defending Union County Tournament champion Roselle Catholic, St. Patrick School, and St. Mary of the Assumption. Linden finished with a 5-3 record in conference play last year.
Linden was swept by Roselle Catholic last season but split the season series with the St. Patrick School.
“We will compete in every game. When you play hard and together, more times then not, you will give your team the best chance to win, if you do not, you do not win them. But we are going to give it our best shot, that is all you can ask your team to do, is compete and play as hard as they possibly can." said Coach Drejaj.
Despite everything that lies ahead for Anthony Drejaj and his Linden Tigers, he remains excited to take the lessons learned and kick off the new chapter of his coaching career.
“I’m ready for it,” Drejaj said of the upcoming season. “I have been waiting for my time. I put in my time in, and now I’m going to try and make the best of it.”