March 12, 2014 10:28PM
By Ken Lipshez
WALLINGFORD — The persona of a basketball coach is fixed in our minds.
There’s the vociferous former Indiana University coach who set the indoor chair-throwing record to express his dissatisfaction with game officials.
We’re happy to see UConn’s Hall-of-Fame mentor Jim Calhoun savoring his retirement, since his career full of frenzied sideline antics could well have contributed to a coronary.
And for every college or professional coach who splits a gut to rankle a ref, there are dozens of their high school counterparts who interpret such habits as being part of the job.
Don’t expect to see that sort of behavior on the Lyman Hall girls bench. Tom Lipka, thoroughly enjoying his 11th year on the job, may resemble Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim physically, but not in temperament. His tone is soft and his message is direct.
“He’s a consummate professional,” said Jim Ferraro, Lipka’s baseball coach at Lyman Hall and longtime Housatonic Division rival while coaching Cheshire girls basketball. “He’s very analytical, not as animated as others. He was a great student in high school and college, and it boiled over from the classroom into his coaching.
“He’s a great teacher of the game, and that’s lost in high school basketball these days,” Ferraro added. “You can watch Tom’s team and it’s fundamentally sound. That’s teaching. It’s boring, but it makes you successful.”
Three-year starter Nicole Mierzejewski, the versatile center and leading scorer in the Trojans’ balanced attack, said Lipka doesn’t have to scream to get his points across.
“He’s very quiet, but he definitely knows what he’s talking about,” Mierzejewski said. “He got us this far and we wouldn’t be the team we are without him. He taught us to work together. We didn’t do well sophomore year and that’s why we’re a lot better. He pushes you to do your hardest.
“He gives constructive criticism. He’ll tell you when you’re not doing the right thing so you’ve got to change because he doesn’t normally criticize us.”
Lipka is 117-121 going into tonight’s Class L quarterfinal clash at Farmington. The numbers mean little.
Lyman Hall lost all 20 of its games in the 2011-12 season. Two years later, with the starting lineup virtually the same, the Trojans have won their most games in a season since 1997-98. They haven’t advanced this far in the state tournament since 1992-93.
The achievement speaks to the coach’s patient nature and the perseverance of this year’s protagonists — Mierzejewski, her twin sister Taylor, Krista Petersen, Naomi Rascati and Kim Petit.
“When he was 0-20 he said they’d be good because he was playing the young kids,” Ferraro said. “He had that foresight. It’s a rare feature in a coach to take his lumps and see into the future. Some coaches would rather leave, but coaching’s about nurturing, growing and teaching. He probably did as good a coaching job that year as this year because he kept the program together.
“Not a lot of good comes out of 0-20, but he got a lot of good out of it. He kept the unity and this is his reward. He has a great bunch of young ladies.”
A closer look at the winless campaign of 2011-12 reveals that the Trojans were not as inept as the record suggests.
“I don’t think of them as an 0-20 team,” Lipka said. “We played a brutal schedule — Mercy, Hillhouse and Career twice each, mostly ‘LL’ schools. The schedule was based on the two previous years and we had good years.
“It was a fun group to be around. They were very positive and they loved to play.”
After a 12-9 turnaround last season, the pressure was on Lipka and the girls to have a big year.
“This is the year we’ve been working toward for the last two years,” Nicole Mierzejewski said. “We knew we had the potential. The same starting five we have now played on that 0-20 team, so we’ve worked together for three years. We basically know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”
Lipka also confronted a challenge far greater than anything basketball could spawn.
“Ten years ago — January, 2004 — one morning I woke up and I couldn’t talk,” he said. “I thought I had laryngitis but, after a week, it didn’t get better. The doctor said I probably had a real bad case.
“Another week went by and it still wasn’t better. I had a CAT scan and they found a tumor pressing against my vocal cord.”
It was a germ cell tumor, the type known to afflict men between 20- and 30-years-old. He underwent three months of “very intense” chemotherapy and in three months it was gone.
“It took until mid-summer before I started getting my voice back,” said Lipka, who took a year off from teaching mathematics. “Every three months, I took a test and now it’s just once a year. It’s a good thing I lost my voice.”
Unlike so many of his coaching colleagues, he doesn’t need throat lozenges after games.
“I’m not a screamer,” he said. “Girls are sensitive. Some don’t react to people screaming at them. I may have something to say during a timeout or halftime, but I don’t scream at them. I don’t try to embarrass kids. We try to stay positive. They do their best and try hard, but mistakes happen.”
Adversity provides a good foundation for those who can put it into perspective, and nobody knows how well Lipka has processed his experiences better than Ferraro does.
“To me, he’s still that 18-year-old kid, the most polite and respectful you’d ever want to meet,” he said. “When I was at Cheshire, the first Housatonic championship we had won came against Lyman Hall in ’05-06. I couldn’t even enjoy it because Tommy was on the other sideline.”
And, win or lose, Lipka never loses sight of scholastic sports’ main purpose, something that a longtime coach like Ferraro can well appreciate.
“It’s refreshing how he’s raised that program,” Ferraro said. “You can look in the mirror and pat yourself on the back, but Tommy doesn’t need self-gratification. It’s all about the kids.”