In today’s New York Times, I’ve got a long profile of Vito Montelli, who coached the boys’ basketball team at St. Joseph High School for 50 years — and to 11 Connecticut state championships.
Montelli’s a great character, and you should also check out the photos by my friend Chris Capozziello. But one of the things that drew me to this story was a chance to think about a larger question: why high school sports aren’t as big in New England as they are elsewhere in the country. We had to cut a lot of that material, and I hope to write about it again in the future. But I will say that while New England high school athletics occur on a smaller scale, there are pockets of passion and commitment.
One of those is at the gym in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where I watched Montelli’s successor, Chris Watts, coach (and win) his first game. Ridgefield is not a traditional state power, but a couple years ago it hired a new athletic director and coach named Carl Charles. Charles used to be an assistant under Montelli, and he’s built up a solid program — and a serious home-court advantage.
Like most Connecticut high schools, Ridgefield has a small gym — there wasn’t enough room for the St. Joe’s cheerleaders, which meant they sat behind the bench — but at least a quarter of the seats were devoted to the Tigers’ Lair, the school’s college-quality student section. The Tigers’ Lair boasts a Twitter feed, a collection of inventive cheers (when Watts walked out, they chanted “Vito Montelli”), and one of those custom Big Heads signs for Kurt Steidl, the senior star who is heading to the University of Vermont on a scholarship. Now, I’ve been to a lot of high school basketball games, including a bunch in basketball-crazy Indiana, but Ridgefield and the Tiger’s Lair had one of the best atmospheres I’ve ever seen. It was a fun game for a lot of reasons. (In the fourth quarter, Montelli, who was sitting next to the cheerleaders, motioned a St. Joe’s assistant over: “Let Chris know he has two fouls he can give.”) But most of all, it was fun because of some great basketball — Watts didn’t need any help, as he masterfully coached St. Joe’s to a 48-42 win — and because of some crazy fans. In fact, I’d stack those fans up against those from anywhere in the country.