In his third year as head coach of Canton girls basketball, Brian Medeiros has the Lady Warriors back in the CIAC Class S championship game for a second straight season. | Dave Zajac / Record-Journal
March 20, 2015 01:06PM
By Ken Lipshez
The evolution of a basketball coaching tree is not limited to the professional and college ranks.
Such trees grow very well in certain pockets around Connecticut and the lush growth along the Farmington River in Canton has a lot to do with a seed that was nurtured in Wallingford.
When the Class S championship game unfolds Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Mohegan Sun Arena, a school with a spotted basketball history will be taking the floor under the guidance of former Lyman Hall player Brian Medeiros.
Medeiros, 30, is one of many coaches spawned by the Connecticut Starters, a cutting-edge AAU organization that has been a hallmark for girls basketball since 1988. Nine former Starters coaches are on college sidelines, including Jennifer Rizzotti at the University of Hartford and Beryl Piper at Central Connecticut State University.
“It’s funny, but when you talk about coaching trees, I say I’m a ‘Fred Williams guy’ or I’m a ‘Nick Economopoulos guy,’” Medeiros said.
“That’s where I’ve been so fortunate. It’s amazing the people I’ve been associated with and I think that’s why I’m not as surprised that I’m doing as well as I am on my own. I’ve learned from these people.”
Economopoulos is the patriarch of the Wallingford family that has been synonymous with basketball for generations. The same can be said of Williams, longtime coach of Northwestern Regional-Winsted, in the state’s northwest corner.
Medeiros also numbers former Cheshire High coach Joe Ticotsky, a Starters founding father along with Economopoulos and Bill Raber of Rockville, as a mentor vital to establishing his coaching foundation.
Another branch of the Medeiros tree dates back to the days of his youth when Mike Papale, Val Gigante, Tom Dooley and his father Milton Medeiros planted the acorn that has grown into a sturdy oak.
Canton generally has found the going rough in the North Central Connecticut Conference, an amalgamation of small schools that for years has been dominated by Avon.
Canton was 2-18 when the current seniors were freshmen and 10-12 in 2012-13.
“The expression was ‘Can’t Win,’ especially when Avon’s involved,” Medeiros said. “‘Can’t Win Canton!’ Every time there’s a big game, it’s ‘Can’t Win Canton.’”
When Medeiros came aboard last year, Canton finished 16-8, losing to Sacred Heart in the Class S quarterfinals. This year, on the eve of the Class S title game against defending champion Thomaston, the Warriors are 22-4. Canton’s only previous trips to the S finals resulted in losses to Valley Regional in 1999 and Westbrook in 1982.
The success story isn’t about to conclude with Saturday’s result.
Leading scorer Maggie Treacy (17 points per game) is a junior. Versatile Emily Briggs (15 ppg.) is a sophomore. Gabrielle Rose is the senior leader.
“He’s been amazing,” Rose said. “He came in and built the program up so much. His first year we were so successful and now we’re going to the Mohegan. It’s crazy. He did such a good job. We definitely had talent, but he knew exactly what to do with it and made us really successful.”
Emma Charron, a junior guard, was designated as team spokesman at the CIAC tournament luncheon Wednesday.
“I remember before our season started, [Medeiros] met with us to talk about his goals for the upcoming season,” she told an assemblage that included all eight casino-bound finalists. “He told us our first two missions and we nodded in agreement, but then things got crazy. I can still see the words ‘Mohegan Sun’ coming out of his mouth. After an awkward silence, we all looked at each other and laughed: Canton? Mohegan? What did he eat?”
The strategy Medeiros gleaned from the likes of Economopoulos, Ticotsky and the coaches of his youthful days at Holy Trinity Elementary School and the Wallingford Parks and Rec leagues began thriving in the Farmington Valley.
With victory comes the changing of the culture. The Canton gym, once sparsely populated, is the hub of activity and enthusiasm on game nights.
“The fans that show up to all the games have their own section, ‘The Wigwam,’” Medeiros said.
“They are loud, they are strong, they are powerful. There are plenty of teams that don’t like coming into our gym now. There have even been a few officials that have vented to me after games that they don’t like coming here because of how much energy there is.”
Medeiros, an adaptive physical education teacher at High Roads Academy in Wallingford, attended Xavier High his freshman year, then transferred to Lyman Hall, from where he graduated in 1999. Economopoulos was his teacher in two classes.
Medeiros went on to Eastern Connecticut State University, where the transformation from player to coach began.
“I could play, but I didn’t actually think that I would have much of a [college] career,” he said. “Nick said he needed a freshman coach [at East Catholic]. I thought he was joking. He said, ‘If you like it, stay. If you don’t, don’t worry about it.’ It was something about the interaction with the kids and that day-to-day basketball [involvement] that I love.”
Medeiros spent the better part of 10 seasons at East Catholic, where his brother Scott, now the head coach at Haddam-Killingworth, guided the junior varsity under Economopoulos. When Al Lewis replaced Economopoulos, Medeiros remained. When Lewis left for Florida two years ago, he was miffed when he didn’t get the job.
“They gave it to Katie DaCosta. I was in the final two. I thought I was going to get it. I was surprised. Canton sent something to me and I didn’t even remember applying to Canton. They asked if I could come in for an interview. I said, ‘What school is this?’ They said, ‘Canton.’ I said I’d be there. I had to look up where it was.”
His interview with Canton High principal Drew DiPippo, the former boys basketball coach at Windsor Locks, went well.
“I thought he was a perfect fit based on what I had heard,” DiPippo said.
“I knew he had real basketball acumen, but I also liked his disposition. He had high expectations and he communicates well with the young people. I appreciated his approach. It was a combination of his approach and his history that made me believe he could be successful.”
The legacy that Economopoulos created at Lyman Hall and East Catholic and Ticotsky forged at Cheshire has been reborn with the enhancement of Medeiros’ own personality and variations.
“[Ticotsky is] constantly helping me with my craft,” he said.
“Sometimes he’s my boss, sometimes he’s my friend and it can be the best of both worlds. He’s constantly throwing ideas at me. He’s constantly trying to get me to grow as a coach and, more importantly, as a person.”
Ticotsky is captivated by Medeiros’ technique.
“Brian’s laid-back style and low-key manner really hides what is a very competitive coach,” Ticotsky said. “He is probably one of the best in-game and end-of-game strategic coaches I’ve ever been around. He has a real feel for what works and what won’t and is always ready with what we call a ‘Plan B.’ He won’t hesitate to alter his original game plan if needed and thinks outside the box with offensive or defensive adjustments.
“Kids like to play for him because he understands that players like to run and allows them offensive freedom while trying to play an uptempo style.”