For 21 years the Delsea girls' teams had been toiling on the track and in the field without winning a state title. The last Saturday in May all of that changed at Egg Harbor Township's Silver Eagle Stadium.
There, Delsea won its first outright title by scoring 65 points, 21 better than runner-up Haddonfield. The last time the Crusaders had won was in 1989, when they shared the crown with Kingsway.
Sprinter Brianna Crofton, jumper Brianna Hunt, and thrower Janiece Rose won their events on May 30 to give the Crusaders a big push toward the championship. However, the guiding force was head coach Jim Rafferty, a man who knows how to get the most out of his athletes.
Rafferty is The Inquirer girls' track and field coach of the year in South Jersey.
A former distance runner for Gloucester Catholic, Rafferty was elated by the victory, but even if the team didn't win, he would have felt the same about his athletes and job.
"I feel like the luckiest guy on earth," said Rafferty, who has coached the sport at Delsea for the last 21 years. "I love doing something I enjoy."
In addition to winning a state crown, Rafferty was inducted into the Delsea Hall of Fame on June 7. An assistant football coach for 33 years, Rafferty was the ninth inductee since the Hall of Fame opened in 2000.
"Feels like an unbelievable year, not only the team winning the state title but the same week I'm inducted into the Delsea Hall of Fame," Rafferty said.
Rafferty's career record with the girls' track and field team is 97-33-2. Although his teams rarely win the big one, that's not what's important in his grand scheme. A teacher in the social studies department for 40 years, Rafferty is interested in building character.
Williamstown coach Nancy Manzoni praised Rafferty for teaching his athletes how to conduct themselves in a positive way. Delsea athletic director Steve Iles remarked about Rafferty's "overall enthusiasm and passion in working with young people."
Teenagers, known for tuning out authority figures, actually listen to the man when he gives motivational speeches.
Rafferty said he has 10 points he tries to get across to student athletes, but he stresses a couple of them.
"Mainly, it's good character, hard work, and the concept of no regrets, just do your best," Rafferty said.
His sincerity comes through, according to Iles, who recalled what happened when he asked Rafferty to assist him with the wrestling team many years ago.
"He knew nothing about wrestling but the kids would have run through a wall for him because they respected him," Iles said.
Rafferty's current crop of athletes is no different. They listen, they learn, and they execute.
"Raff was a big part of winning the state title," Crofton said. "He motivated us before practice and he gave us good advice after races. He was like our Dad, always there for us."
Distance runner Felicia O'Donnell added: "I usually pay attention [to his speeches] because he says things that hit home with me."
No one knows how long it will take to win another state crown. However, Rafferty has no intention of retiring.
He loves what he does too much.