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There’s an incredibly rich history of high school coaches in Connecticut, a laundry list of great leaders who brought the best out of their teams for decades.
And yet here we were on Saturday, witnessing two feats never before accomplished by a baseball coach in this state.
Amity’s victory at Palmer Field, a 4-3 walk-off win over Fairfield Warde, was its fourth successive CIAC Class LL championship. Only Shelton, with titles from 1972-74, had won as many as three in any division before the Spartans dynamic run in the state’s largest class.
The most recent title is the sixth for Amity’s Sal Coppola. He passed five-time champions Bob DeMayo (North Haven), Bob Freimuth (Plainville), Leo Veleas (Berlin) and Gerry Rousseau (Waterford) to become the most decorated baseball coach in state history.
Still, Coppola wasn’t about to make it about himself. Not today. Not this season. Not in the past 23 years for that matter. Every accomplishment is a team accomplishment. An afternoon for the history books is no reason to bask in personal glory.
“I’m so proud of our guys,” Coppola said. “Coaches can only do so much. The players have to be in the right frame of mind and come and do the job. When the going gets tough, they’re ice. They’ll make it happen. It’s what they’ve done year in and year out.”
Amity’s six titles have come in the past 10 years. Since 2003, the Spartans also have two state runner-up finishes and three other appearances in the semifinals. It’s a remarkable run of success. Amity has made winning look easy. Explaining the recipe is a bit more complicated.
“There are so many little things that are connected,” said Jeff Rotteck, an assistant coach the past 22 years. “All the aspects of winning you need consistently are in there. The kids have trust in each other and Sal gets them confident in their abilities. That’s what it takes.”
The team’s uncanny ability to rise to the top is hardly a fluke. It’s been prepared to succeed thanks to a regimented daily practice routine conceived by Coppola and carried out with help from Rotteck and Brendan Moss.
— Sean Patrick Bowley (@SPBowley) June 11, 2016
Coppola works exclusively with the team’s pitchers. Rotteck handles the infielders and catchers. Moss, in his eighth season on the staff, works with outfielders and is the de facto batting coach. Each is given full control of their specific areas of expertise.
“We complement each other so well,” Coppola said. “I don’t touch the infielders; I barely look at the outfielders so I can spend all my time with the pitchers. I know their pitches better than they do. To have such seasoned coaches makes my life easier.”
Fifteen years ago his coaching life was anything but simple. The program was almost blown apart by a handful of disgruntled parents with axes to grind. They wanted more playing time for their kids, access to private practices and a scapegoat for their witch hunt.
The Amity Coaches Association, wary of the lunacy unfolding and the far-reaching repercussions of allowing parents to dictate, micromanage and undermine, threatened mass resignations if the baseball coaching staff was not held intact. The Board of Education rescinded proposed changes. The program soon became the gold standard for success in Connecticut.
It was around that time Coppola attended a coaching clinic featuring Jim Calhoun. The afternoon spawned a game-changing idea. Practices, Calhoun preached, should be as fun and competitive as possible. Coppola soon devised the Breakfast League, a template in which daily practices were coordinated into a season-long competition.
The team is split into four groups that cycle through stations. Two are in the field. One gets live at-bats. The other takes cuts in the batting cage. A point system rewards execution of specific plays and situations, like moving a runner over or making a great defensive play.
It’s a far cry from the standard batting practice, where one guy swings while everyone else shags. Coppola, a former pitcher at Southern Connecticut State, throws a daily diet of fastballs, hard curves and sliders. Ken Spitzbard, a volunteer coach at Amity since 1988, estimates Coppola, 47, throws between 200 and 300 pitches a day. The workload takes a toll by the season’s final practice.
“My arm was hanging yesterday,” Coppola said. “It was throbbing. But I sucked it up and threw in pain. What do I need my arm for still?”
The real benefit of the Breakfast League lies in the fierce competition to win. Standings are posted daily. Weekly leaders are absolved from paying during periodic trips for breakfast at local the diner (hence the name). The real payoff is for the winning team. Each member has their name engraved on a permanent plaque.
— Sean Patrick Bowley (@SPBowley) June 12, 2016
Amity senior tri-captain Brian Ronai said his group was atop the standings all season before being knocked out two days ago.
“I was so mad. My name’s never been on that plaque, so I’m a little disappointed,” said Ronai, who happened to be holding the state championship trophy. “But I got another one of these, so I’ll take it.”
Meticulous practice preparation makes Amity a well-oiled machine; loose, poised and able to handle any situation. Saturday was a prime exhibit. When right fielder Ted Hague lost a routine fly ball in the sun, setting up a game-tying sixth inning homer by Warde’s Giacomo Brancato, the Spartans were unfazed.
They loaded the bases in the sixth but came up empty, only to do it again in the seventh. Max Scheps drew a walk to force in the winning run, igniting yet another championship celebration.
In his postgame interviews Coppola, after getting an ice bath courtesy of his team captains, heaps praise on his assistant coaches, the kids and even their parents. Yes, attitudes of the parents have come a long way in 15 years.
Explaining the recipe to success may be complicated, but the central figure to this baseball dynasty is clear.
“Sal’s the leader,” Rotteck says. “It all starts with him.”