WEST HAVEN — For close to three decades, it has always been hockey first for long-time West Haven coach Joe Morrell. That is about to change.
With an opportunity to go back to school and pursue added career opportunities, Morrell, 55, informed his team he has decided to step down from coaching the Westies effective immediately.
“I have the opportunity to go back to school,” Morrell said. “For a lot of my coaching career, it has been West Haven hockey first. I have always preached to the kids, family, school, hockey. It has not always been that way for me or my family.
“I have been doing this for 28 years, 21 as a head coach. I have spent a lot of time away from home. My wife (Jackie) has always been 100 percent behind me. I could not have asked for a better partner in life. My kids (Jocey and Jolie), all they know is their father coaches West Haven hockey. I am known as the coach of West Haven hockey and I love that. West Haven hockey has been a big part of my life.”
A physical education teacher at West Haven High and also the head coach of the school’s softball team, Morrell is looking to the future as he pursues his sixth year degree in administration and leadership. With an opportunity to broaden his career, Morrell is taking the step forward.
“It is just something that I feel I have to do,” Morrell said. “I want to be able to give all my effort to going back to school. I have to be fully committed. That’s the way I am.”
Said superintendent of schools Neil C. Cavallaro, “Joe is old school West Haven hockey. One of the things about Joe is how he takes the game of hockey, and the tradition and history of West Haven hockey. That is a big part of his coaching philosophy. The kids understand what it means to wear the West Haven High School jersey. Joe is really passionate about West Haven hockey and he gets that message to the kids.
“I think above all else, Joe is a teacher,” Cavallaro said. “He is a consummate professional, whether it is coaching or teaching physical education, or scheduling. He gets involved at the Bennett Rink, and he is involved with West Haven Youth Hockey. Joe is all about promoting the kids. He gives his time and effort to the community.”
Morrell’s teams have qualified for the state tournament in 20 of his 21 seasons as head coach, only missing the postseason during the 2005-2006 season. Morrell compiled a regular season record of 223-170-23 and overall mark of 234-190-23.
Said West Haven athletic director Jon Capone, “Words can’t describe what West Haven hockey meant to Joe. It’s been a huge part of his life both as a player and a coach. He has so much respect for this program and he instilled that in all his players. I can’t thank him enough for all his hard work and dedication to the West Haven High School hockey program.”
While Morrell looks ahead, there are plenty of fond memories to look back on, including his 234 career wins. The long-time coach came to the Westies after one year as an assistant at Guilford and six years of being an assistant coach across town at Notre Dame.
“I just want to thank all who supported me, including Neil Cavallaro, Jon Capone, and (the late) Pam Gardner, who was a huge supporter of me,” Morrell said. “I know she would be happy with my decision. The West Haven High School Penalty Box Club played a huge role in the program, and I would like to thank all the past and present members for doing what they do every year.”
Known for getting the best out of all his teams, Morrell was admired for having his teams ready to go, especially against teams which drew from more than one town.
With the hockey numbers down, Morrell and his staff, which also included long-time assistants Steve McCarty, Gene Pacapelli, John Ascenzia, Jim Lafo, and Eric Dillner, always seemed to get the best out of the team. Morrell could also turn to alumni such as Jim Perno to make sure his team was prepared in every aspect as well.
The Westies never won a state title under Morrell, but reached the semifinals four times, the latest time coming during the 2016-2017 season when the Westies were eliminated at Ingalls Rink in the semifinals by Ridgefield. That year saw the Westies upset third-seeded Xavier in the tournament.
“I am happy with the amount of times we made the tournament, but that one thing, a state championship, eluded us,” Morrell said. “It still bothers me. A lot of coaches were rooting for us because they knew how much that meant to me. That was the one thing I wish I could have gotten for this program.”
Xavier would prove to be a thorn in the side of the Westies as the two teams squared off in the postseason in six of the last seven years, with the Falcons coming out on top in five of those contests, including the last two seasons.
That 2016-2017 team embodied everything Morrell and his staff preached with solid goaltending and defense, and scoring from numerous players. The bottom line always came back to hard work.
“I always told the kids it would come down to hard work,” Morrell said. “We may not have been as talented as some teams, but we were going to outwork them. I think for the most part, we did that. I think the team really understood what it took to play at West Haven. Our teams outworked other teams to be successful.”
Morrell and his teams suffered heartbreak twice in a span of three years going back to the 2001-2002 and 2003-2004 seasons as the Westies fell in overtime of the semifinals of the state tournament in both seasons.
Despite an epic comeback in the final minutes or regulation as the second seed, West Haven lost to New Canaan in 2001-2002, before falling in a gut-wrenching 4-3 double overtime contest to second-seeded Fairfield Prep in 2003-2004. The Jesuits would go on to defeat Notre Dame-West Haven for the state title.
“I enjoyed winning,” Morrell said. “You obviously want to win as much as you can and you don’t want the kids to be afraid of losing. In the quarterfinal and semifinal games, everything was this close. It was the bounce of a puck. Against Ridgefield a few years back, we were tied going into the third period. We just had to get that bounce and we didn’t get it. In the postseason, it is true when they say it is a game of inches.”
Over the last 10 seasons, Morrell’s teams had three golden opportunities to take home the program’s first state title since 1994.
The biggest opportunity never panned out during the 2009-2010 campaign as the Westies entered the postseason as the top seed with a 17-3 record, but were upset in the first round by Darien. Two years later, West Haven fell to Notre Dame-West Haven in the semifinals, before suffering the same fate against Ridgefield during the 2016-2017 season.
Morrell will always be known for his softer side when dealing with players and tough situations. He will also be known for how serious he took practices.
“My wife would always get mad at me because I always said no one does it like Joe Morrell and I had the same philosophy,” Pacapelli said. “His way was the right way and no one else came close as far as I was concerned. He put so much into everything he did, whether it was practice with a 5-year-old or a high school game. He gave it his all no matter what. It was just his positivity in any situation. He was upbeat about everything. He could look at anything and look at the bright side of that situation. He just had a great attitude.”
“Practice is what I loved,” Morrell said. “Practice was like gold to me. One of the best things to me was seeing all the alumni who came back to help. I knew how much this program meant to them. I will miss that a great deal. I love being the coach of West Haven.”
The search to replace Morrell will begin immediately. Cavallaro feels the job is an attractive one with the history of the program and a new school set to be in place.
“I believe with all my heart, this is a very attractive job,” Cavallaro said. “We will start today to begin that process.”