BURLINGTON - The Lewis Mills High School girls basketball team is coming off one of the most successful seasons in school history and is replacing a winning and popular coach. Those are pretty tough circumstances for a new coach but they are exactly what Joe Capitani is facing.
Capitani is entering his fourth season as a basketball coach at Mills but his first as the head coach of the varsity program, one that has become a dominant force in the Berkshire League and showed it can play with just about anyone in the state last season.
Gone is coach Dennis Fowler, who led Lewis Mills to a program-record 25-win season and a berth in the Class M semifinals. Fowler, who stepped down as girls hoops coach to spend more time with his family, posted a record of 136-32 in seven seasons.
Capitani coached with Fowler for the last three seasons and will bring some of that influence to the job, but the new coach also has some ideas of his own.
"We still talk all the time and Dennis was definitely a good person to learn from," Capitani said. "I have my own style and my own thoughts on what I want to do and how things should be done. I think we complimented each other well when we worked together and so I took some good stuff from Dennis and added it to what I like."
A 2004 graduate of Lewis Mills, Capitani brings a different perspective to the job because he played here, he's a Spartan and it definitely is something that means something to him.
"I played basketball here, so I bring that perspective to the job," he said. "Taking pride in your school and having a sense of responsibility to your teammate and school. When we handed out the varsity uniforms, I said this is not just a blue and white uniform. A Lewis Mills uniform is special, it's special to me and it was special when I played here."
Capitani is not only influenced by coach Fowler, but also by another successful Lewis Mills coach, Mike Tracy, who won a state title as the boys coach for the Spartans.
A coach imparts many lessons to his players throughout the course of a season and their career. But they are no dummies, not everything is going to stick, but if you can get one or two important lessons across to just a few kids then you are a success, and some of Tracy's lessons definitley resonated with Capitani.
"The one thing coach Tracey got us to do was play hard," Capitani said. "That was the one thing he demanded. He definitely instilled in me a work ethic and how to play hard as well as take pride in your school."
So it should be no surprise that Capitani expects the current crop of Spartans to leave it all on the floor and do their school proud. Capitani seemed to think they did just that Wednesday as Mills opened its season with a tough 44-35 loss to Kolbe Cathedral in Bridgeport.
"Kolbe was a good jumping off point for us, we played extremely hard," Capitani said. "We have some things to work on but if we bring that level of intensity and work that hard all season, we are going to be in good shape."
Now that the regular season is uderway and preseason is over, Capitani and his new team seem to know what to expect from each other. That wasn't always the case despite the fact that he had been at Mills for three years before becoming head coach.
"I didn't really know what to expect. The previous experience helped, knowing the girls and having built some relationships but is was also a bit of a weakness,' Capitani said. "The assistant coach, he's the good guy, there to help out. As a head coach it's tough to be the good cop. They didn't get to see my coaching style as much when I was an assistant but I think we have adjusted to each other well."
Now Capitani can turn to the task at hand, replacing five senior starters from a team that was minutes away from a state final and that finished with a record of 25-1. It will be a tough chore, and the Spartans won't be many people's first choice to win the Berkshire League this season, but Capitani likes the group he is going to work with.
"We have a great group of girls and they want to learn and they want to get better and they work hard every time we are in the gym," he said. "I don't think I could ask for a harder working group as a first year coach than the one I have here, they have made the adjustment go much easier."
Capitani says that seniors Kristen Van Gilst and Vicki Hernandez will be among his top players along with Hope Shevchuk, who scored 19 points against Kolbe. He went on to say that Thomaston and Nonnewaug should be at the top of the league with Wamogo not far behind.