BEST OF THE BUNCH: Our coaches: first in, last out and never truly gone

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We end with the folks who are the last to leave.

And usually the first to arrive.

The coaches.

We’ve been around this block enough to know that the men and women who coach at the high school level give far more of themselves than they’re ever paid for.

Or at least the best ones, the ones with their fingerprints all over the light switches.

The majority of high school coaches are professional educators. Even the ones who aren’t, well, they become professional educators by default.

Most start in their mid-20s, early in their careers, before marriage, before families.

Those come in time and, for the ones who stick with it, adjustments are made, but passion and time invested hardly lessen. Children grow, seasons pass.

Some keep going well after retirement, even after the grandkids come.

For all the headlines, high school coaches toil in relative obscurity, and they’re fine with that or they’d have been long gone to the flashy, lucrative carousels of college and pro coaching, where riders seem most fixated on the next horse to ride.

Good high school coaches tend to stay put.

“Stand in the place where you are,” as an American band sang a few years back. Whether our best coaches know the words or not, they’ve long been humming the tune.

In the Record-Journal coverage area, we’re blessed to have a number of them, and any one of them could have been Record-Journal Coach of the Year for 2021-22.

Charles Farley, who has been coaching for 57 years, who has been coaching Sheehan track and field since the school opened, just oversaw his program earning its first State Open championship this spring.

Davina Hernandez coached the Southington softball team to its third straight Class LL state championship and national record 20th overall. Old hat? Hardly. Afflicted with Lupus, Hernandez spent much of this season battling health issues.

The Blue Knights won every game except one. Good coaches find a way.

At Maloney, girls soccer coach Eoin McClure, girls basketball coach John Vieira, girls tennis coach Tim Sweigard and girls track coach Don Askew oversaw some of the best seasons in program history.

Maloney football coach Kevin Frederick brought home the school and city’s first state title in that sport.

Across town, Platt’s Bryan McCarty was recognized for 30 years of contributions to wrestling with induction into the Connecticut Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. Then he went out and led Platt baseball to its best season in a decade.

In Wallingford, Donna Neary (Lyman Hall swimming) and Rob Huelsman (Sheehan girls soccer) were SCC Coaches of the Year in their sports.

So were Charissa Zbikowski (Sheehan girls lacrosse), Dale Nosel (Sheehan indoor track) and Charles Farley. Ditto for Cheshire golf coach Dan Lee, also the long-time boys basketball coach of the Rams.

They were all triumphant this year. Yet most high school coaches will tell you their best coaching comes not in the winning seasons, when the cups overflow, but in the losing ones, when the cupboards are bare.

Masterful coaches, like master chefs, can work magic with meager ingredients. Wins and losses aren’t always the full measure.

In fact, it could be argued, they never are. Not at the high school level, where the role of coach is, first and foremost, that of educator.

Whatever purity may remain in sport, it is here, in high school. Compared to other arenas, there is nothing that is transactional.

Though cliche, it is true: The ultimate value of high school sports is they are an extension of the classroom. They have to be. They’d better be. The influence coaches can have on the lives of their charges is profound. It extends so far beyond the mere season at hand.

It can extend for a lifetime. Right now, as you read this, are you not thinking of the coach who influenced you most?

Chances are good that coach has passed on. Maybe he or she has a field named after them. If not, maybe he or she should.

But they do live on. Their pep talks still echo. That’s the beauty of coaching. If done right, when somebody remarks, “That guy’s been coaching forever,” it’s literally going to be true some day.

This year, two active coaches in the Record-Journal coverage area passed away. Longtime Platt girls basketball coach Tom Johnson, who came out of retirement this winter to coach at Wilcox Tech, died on March 16. Southington baseball coach Charlie Lembo died on May 28.

Both were stricken with cancer. T.J. was 76. Charlie was 61.

We could tell you their numbers. Johnson coached 24 seasons, won 245 games, including the 1989 state championship. Lembo coached 10 years at Southington, won 178 games, took his team to four state finals.

Those are the numbers. This is the full measure:

“He was dedicated and cared about us almost to a fault. He lived and breathed the Platt girls basketball program. He was genuine. He cared about us as young women, not just basketball players. He became part of your family; he wasn’t just your coach. He would teach basketball, but he would teach you how to be a good person for life.”

That was 1989 Platt basketball player Heidi Schmidt speaking of Johnson.

This was Connor Whitehead, a 2022 Southington pitcher, speaking of Lembo, a coach who was as adamant about his players volunteering for charitable work as he was about their executing fundamentals.

“He was very generous with his time and always encouraged us to volunteer and give back to our community. Even this past Thanksgiving, when he was already very sick, he came down to Bread for Life while we were volunteering and gave us a speech about how important (these things are for) team bonding. He didn’t care just about winning games.”

For their accomplishments in the arena, for seeing out a calling literally to the end, for their lasting impact and legacy, Tom Johnson and Charlie Lembo are the Record-Journal Coaches of the Year.


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