METHUEN — Almost every day in the winter, District Court Judge Michael Uhlarick shows up at this court with a big smile.
“After a tough day, sometimes dealing with people in a not-so-positive manner,” he noted, “I look forward to gathering up my things and heading to Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School.”
As in the Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School basketball court.
After some long days trying to keep law and order at the Lawrence District Court on Canal Street, Judge Uhlarik becomes Coach Uhlarik.
“It’s in my blood,” said Uhlarik. “I love basketball. But I really love being around the kids. They make this fun.”
They have also made it exciting this winter, as in the most exciting and best NDCR team in school history.
Case in point: 11 days ago in the NDCR season finale, when fans crowded the floor, mostly made up of students, after the buzzer sounded when NDCR upset Saint Bernard High of Fitchburg, 68-62 in overtime.
“It was special. We loved it,” said Uhlarik. “But I never would’ve predicted this season or the response of everybody, never mind dreamt it.”
Well, it happened.
Not so much the history, as the program made history as the first-ever NDCR basketball team – boys or girls – to clinch state tournament berth at 11-7.
The Panthers play Bartlet High in Webster, Mass., in their Div. 4 preliminary on Monday at 6 p.m., about 70 miles away. Bartlett was 10-10, ranked 25th, compared to NDCR which was ranked 40th.
This year’s winning season comes after seasons in which they’ve won 5, 7, 4, 2 and 7 games.
This was about the emotion of the evening, the overflow of support, admiration and celebration. This was something that happens on other gym floors, like Central Catholic, Methuen High or Lawrence High.
“We knew we could do it,” said NDCR’s top player, senior Emmanuel “Manny” Mota, who had 28 points. “We have a great coach who is always pushing us. He sees things happening before they happen. He has brought us together.”
Where did this story begin?
If you want to get technical, you have to go back to a Chicago suburb, where Uhlarik was born and bred. and where basketball was king.
Uhlarik’s father went to Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis., which was the same school that former coach Al Maguire put on the map, leading the program to a national title in 1977, as well as an NIT title (1970) and two Final Four trips.
“I went to Marquette. My sister went there. My two daughters went there,” said Uhlarik. “Al Maguire was the guy. That’s how I learned the game, watching him and his teams in the 1970s.
“Al was so ahead of his time. He would tell his players to obviously use basketball if it could help them improve their financial status, but never let basketball control their lives so that they miss out on life,” said Uhlarik. “He would always have blue-chippers, but stressed the need to have guys who might not get the ink, but would provide toughness.”
Upon graduating in 1984 from Marquette, he matriculated to Boston College Law School.
He met his wife, Patty, and they had three kids. Uhlarik coached them all in Amesbury, as all, like their dad, played high school basketball.
“I coached the town travel teams for all my kids,” said Uhlarik, who has two daughters and a son, all graduated from college now. “We had an AAU team for the girls, which was predominantly Amesbury kids. We were called the Purple Cobras. That wasn’t my first choice. The girls chose.”
When his kids graduated and went off to college, Uhlarik got the itch to coach again.
One day while going on one of his walks during lunch from the Lawrence District Court on Canal Street, he got an idea
“I was walking on Haverhill Street where the old St. Mary’s School was and saw kids outside during recess,” recalled Uhlarik. “I saw the sign ‘Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School’ and said to myself, ‘I never heard of it.’ I got back to the office and researched it.”
He noticed they had boys’ and girls’ basketball programs, and with his wealth of experience, particularly coaching girls, he inquired about a possible volunteer assistant position.
The principal answered his note and, by happenstance, there was a potential opening for the girls’ varsity head coach job. But a new principal soon entered the picture, and he interviewed again.
“It was crazy and unexpected,” recalled Uhlarik. “The next thing I knew I’m the boys’ varsity head coach.”
By the time he was hired he had done his homework on the school and its mission: It provides a Catholic, affordable, culturally sensitive, college prep education enhanced by professional work experience for young men and women from families with limited income.
“I was all-in,” said Uhlarik. “Everything about the school is amazing. Everything. The academics are rigorous, the religious component, the corporate work study program, kids that needed a little financial help. This was a perfect fit for me.”
The basketball part, with almost zero history of winning records, was less than perfect.
“But I had been around the Merrimack Valley a bit and realized his is a very fertile area for basketball with Central Catholic, Andover, Methuen, Haverhill, etc.,” said Uhlarik, who started there in 2016-17. “It hit me that we could do something here, on a smaller scale, with basketball.”
There were roadblocks. The top middle school talents in the area weren’t considering NDCR. and the gymnasium wasn’t always up to snuff for that level of play.
In fact, one season NDCR had to play every game on the road due to gym issues.
“A few years there early on it was tough, trying to compete consistently,” said Uhlarik. “I’m a competitive guy. I like to win. So we were taking it seriously. The year without a home court I tallied up the miles we traveled. It was about same as going from here to Chicago.”
Uhlarik does not have any assistant coaches.
“I laugh sometimes going through the handshake line after a game and I shake hands with two or three assistant coaches on the other team,” said Uhlarik. “It forces me to be on my toes. I can’t lose focus. The kids our depending on me to be under control as much as possible, which isn’t always easy in this sport.”
Because NDCR is not in a conference, playing as an independent, scheduling is not an easy chore. You have to be creative and willing to travel, including Fitchburg early last week.
A few things happened that not only changed the trajectory of the program, but probably made this state tourney season and last Thursday night’s overtime win over Saint Bernard possible.
One was when the school bought the Presentation of Mary campus in Methuen after that school disbanded.
“The campus is beautiful,” said senior forward Emmanuel “Manny” Mota. “It is so much nicer here.”
Included in that move was taking over a gymnasium, which ranks favorably with many gyms in the area.
“Having a facility like the one we have always helps,” said Uhlkarik. “It means a lot to the kids. It’s not only a great place to play, but watch, too. Coming to Methuen was a game-changer for us.”
As for competing with what happened on Thursday night, there was a game to end the 2020 season when NDCR, 1-15, at the time, played its finale at Greater Lawrence Tech.
“It was at their place so it wasn’t a huge crowd for us,” recalled Uhlarik. “But we shocked them. It was a great game. We won (52-50). All I remember was we’re going home and they were going to the state tournament.”
What was special about last Thursday was the “perfect storm” of events.
“Almost every person associated with the school was there, primarily to support the seniors on Senior Night,” said NDCR athletic director Jim Weymouth. “It was incredible. That’s a great part of this school. You can feel the support from everybody when you’re here. Sports have their place. They are secondary to academics, the work program, respect, etc.”
NDCR had played Saint Bernard three days earlier, in Fitchburg, losing, 63-46.
“We were down by 19 at half and fought our way back to three points down,” said Uhlarik. “But the comeback took a lot out of us and we ran out of gas.”
Ironically, NDCR fell behind by 17 at the half last Thursday night.
“Coach told us that we had come back on them before and that this was senior night, and it would be extra special to do it in front our families,” said Mota, who not only tied the game up sending it to overtime, but scored seven of their eight points in OT to clinch the win.
“It was the greatest moment of my career, by far,” said Mota.
His coach concurred.
“It was special,” said Uhlarik, whose team finished the regular season at 11-7. “Seeing how emotional and excited everyone was meant a lot. We have really come together as a team, which is every coach’s dream.
“It helps when you have a player like Manny, who could play for any program in the area. The same with (sophomore) Sebastian Garcia, who is getting better and better all of the time. Or course, you have to have other kids who have played complementary roles … Just like Al Maguire would say.”
Because NDCR boys and girls have so much on their plate, including their work study program, sports will never “run” school policy.
But A.D. Weymouth recalled a conversation he had with NDCR President Sister Maryalyce Gilfeather.
“She was interviewing a prospective student about coming to the school next year and said a big reason is to play basketball,” said Weymouth. “It’s pretty cool. I don’t know if it had anything to do with that win over Saint Bernard, but it’s nice to see that sports can play a role in the school’s mission. Coach Uhlarik is focused on his players being good people first. That’s always going to be important here.”
While Uhlarik has enjoyed the success and recent accolades, he said he has been humbled by his players.
“Sometimes my real job isn’t always positive when it comes to dealing with people,” he said. “But when I get to the school, whether for practice or a game, it’s always positive. The pleasure is all mine.”
You can email Bill Burt at email@example.com.
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