Veteran basketball coaches excited to get back in the gym

Bob Fisher has patrolled high school basketball sidelines for many years, and while the sport may look different this winter, his excitement has never been higher.
Entering his 40th season as head coach, Fisher is one of a number of veteran coaches in the commonwealth who are having to look at the game they have known and loved for years with a new perspective as the MIAA basketball season trudges on amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m as excited as I have ever been for the season,” Fisher said. “I think not having a state tournament this year is good, because the kids and my anticipation is all based on just playing. My expectations are different, but my excitement is the same as all my other 39 years.”
The changes and modifications for the game this winter have led to mixed reactions from coaches. Most of the challenge surrounds figuring out ways to condition players who wear masks and how to balance development with winning when every game for most programs is quintessential toward competing for a league championship. In some cases coaches had to go through tryouts while only being able to evaluate half of their players at once with school rules limiting who and how many students could be in a gym on a given day.
“It’s definitely a very different feel. I’m sure I’ll get excited once the games get closer,” Catholic Memorial coach Denis Tobin said. “Every game is now a league game, so you can’t necessarily experiment in some cases with different rotations like you normally would in your non-league games.”
Tobin, in his 20th year as Knights head coach, does not plan on deviating from his usual run-and-gun style of play even with his players required to wear face coverings.
“So far the kids seem to be able to handle it alright,” Tobin said. “We usually go 10 or 11 guys deep anyway so I do not see us being too impacted by wearing masks but we won’t know for sure until the games start.”
Tobin’s main rival at BC High in Bill Loughnane has been a head coach for 36 years between South Boston and his current home on Morrissey Boulevard. While this winter he had to conduct tryouts in groups of seven and is being forced to alter some of his usual practice routines, he is as excited as ever for the chance at a winter season.
“We’re playing basketball so there is no complaining over here,” Loughnane said. “You know we’ve already had to adjust a little bit of what we do this winter and I am sure there will be more changes coming. As long as these kids are in a gym and we’re doing it safely that is all that matters.”
Oliver Ames girls coach Laney Clement-Holbrook has had her fair share of success. Widely regarded as one of the top coaches in New England with more than 700 career wins, Clement-Holbrook is taking the new challenges of coaching during a pandemic in stride.
“As long as you know the rules of the game and are willing to adjust, you can come to realize that this is an exciting opportunity for not just one high school player or senior but for the entire group,” Clement-Holbrook said. “I am at the point in my career where if I were not excited whether it be for this season or any other, then I would stop doing this.”
The prospect of a league tournament following the regular season also serves as motivation. A number of conferences — notably the Merrimack Valley, Catholic Conference, Patriot League, Hockomock League and Middlesex League, as well as a number of others — are slated to have a conference tournament come the middle of February. Many coaches set to participate are hoping that this year’s league tournament is the first of what becomes an annual event.
“I remember the old New England Catholic basketball tournament, with the top Catholic schools from across New England and those were always great,” Tobin said. “I think in a normal season, conference tournaments would pack the gyms. Across the state, and in our league, you have so many great rivalries and league tournaments only draw greater interest to those. I’m really looking forward to that chance.”

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