In the winter of 1994-95, Bishop Ahr freshman Joe Gallo marveled from the stands as Colonia High School senior Gene Derkack torched his school’s varsity team.
Gallo saw a tough, gritty competitor who excelled in transition and didn’t back down from a challenge. Derkack was the best player in the gym, and he let everyone know it.
Fast forward 27 years, and New Jersey connections started texting and calling Gallo to tell the Merrimack men’s basketball coach that he had to check out Derkack’s kid, Jordan.
Jordan didn’t have any offers out of Colonia, but he shot up five inches to 6 foot 5 and gained 30 pounds at Spire Academy in Ohio, and was beginning to generate some buzz. As soon as Gallo saw Jordan play at a prep school event that spring, he recognized that same unmistakable edge.
“It took 10 minutes to realize he was cut from the same cloth,” Gallo said. “There’s really no scouting report for either one of them. They’re just winners that are tough to outcompete.”
Derkack’s father played basketball and his mother, Jenny, played soccer at Florida International. His sister, Taylor, is a McDonald’s All-American nominee committed to UMass. His brother, Aiden, is a rising 2026 star who already has an offer from Merrimack.
After a strong freshman season, Derkack has embraced increased opportunity and is flourishing as a standout sophomore for the surging Warriors (15-10, 9-2), who have won six straight. He’s the only Division 1 men’s player averaging at least 17.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 2.0 steals while shooting 50.5 percent from the floor or better.
His upbringing, competitive spirit, and versatility have helped him blossom into the Northeast Conference Player of the Year favorite.
“From a young age, you saw that competitive sparkle in his eye,” Gene Derkack said. “I remember early on taking him to play dates and him trying to dunk on people and flex on people. We had to tone it down a little bit.”
Gene recalls a triathlon when a 6-year-old Jordan asked him where to go once he got out of the water. Gene encouraged him to follow everyone else, and Jordan looked confused before inquiring, “I know, but what if I’m first?”
Backyard battles quickly consumed the Derkack family. Even Jenny, whom Jordan believes might be the best athlete in the family, joined in on the fun. Gene, who exposed Jordan to the sport and coached his teams growing up, used to run the court. Now, he mostly rebounds and lets them go at it.
After a Hall of Fame career at Colonia, Gene averaged double figures and eclipsed 1,000 points at FIU alongside future NBA players Raja Bell and Carlos Arroyo. Bell, his college roommate, is a role model and like a “second dad” to Jordan.
“You hear the stories, and it’s hard to understand, but then when you have somebody that’s really in your corner, supporting you, calling you, talking to you, it’s really cool,” Jordan said. “It’s just an awesome experience.”
Derkack found success in high school and captured a state championship and conference Player of the Year honors, but COVID complicated his recruiting process.
“I didn’t have one offer,” Derkack said. “It wasn’t like I had Division 2 and I could have gone. I didn’t have anything.”
So he shipped to Ohio and competed for head coach Jeff Sparrow. The long-awaited growth spurt finally came, and he merged his point guard skills with his bigger frame to form a powerful combo.
After the best four minutes of his career at that spring event, Derkack thought he had set the stage. Then he played quite possibly his worst game, and his mind started racing. Gallo had seen more than enough, though, and he called Derkack later that week.
“I was like, ‘You love me? Right now? You’re going to really love me when you see what’s actually going on here,’ ” Derkack said.
Marist and St. Francis (Pa.) also offered, but Derkack gravitated toward Merrimack’s “ferocious” style and Gallo’s unwavering spirit.
Derkack averaged 7.4 points and started 20 games on the conference champion squad as a freshman.
Gallo’s “Make Chaos” zone system is designed for a rangy and instinctive player like Derkack. In one game, against UMass Lowell, he played the top, the wing, and the 5. The combination of structure and freedom Gallo preaches has resonated. He lets Derkack work through mistakes and play without fear.
The Warriors kept win/loss totals at practice this preseason, and Derkack’s 85-39 record led the team by a significant margin. Gallo isn’t typically one for predictions, but he was confident heading into the season that Derkack would win Player of the Year.
He has led Merrimack in points 14 times, rebounds 13 times, and assists 10 times. In a comeback win over Long Island University last Thursday, Derkack attempted 25 free throws en route to 34 points — literally bringing the hoop down with one particularly forceful dunk.
Gene knew this version of his son was there all along, and he’s incredibly proud to witness his evolution.
“The value he brings to any team he’s ever been on is pretty special,” Gene said.
Trevor Hass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.