By Dave Dyer
---- — The most precarious stage of the season is approaching for Northern Essex Community College men’s basketball coach Darren Stratton.
The first semester’s phase of games is about over with the young Knights (only one non-freshman on the squad) standing at a respectable 6-6, but Stratton, who is in his 13th year as head coach (179-60 before this year) is understandably nervous about the upcoming winter break between games.
This is when semester grades are released and the 40-year-old Stratton finds out if all of his players will be eligible for the second semester. For junior college basketball coaches, it’s a worrisome time.
We caught up with Stratton, who also operates a full-time business in New Hampshire, during one of his few breaks, to go Around the Horn.
Is this the youngest team you’ve ever coached?
“By far, it’s the youngest. It’s not even close.”
How does that affect your coaching?
“The biggest thing is that we’re a lot more patient than with a veteran group. We do a lot more teaching and aren’t quite as demanding.”
Is it more enjoyable or more stressful with a young group of players?
“I’m really enjoying myself because you see the improvement daily. It’s a great group with no ego and that makes it a lot better.”
What’s the toughest thing about coaching at the junior college level?
“The toughest thing is going semester to semester. You can have an unbelievable group and be coaching one system and then you lose four or five kids to grades at the semester break and you have to change everything.
“Last year, we lost four guards and we went from pushing the ball upcourt, real up-tempo to more of a deliberate game. We had to.”
Why is it so difficult to keep kids eligible?
“First of all, a lot of these kids wouldn’t be here if their grades had been better and they had better work habits, but they’re good enough to play on another level. They need to learn how to go about it.
“The other thing is that kids are commuting every day. Unlike with a dorm situation, you don’t have a hold of them. You don’t know what they’re doing once they leave campus.”
Do you spend more time coaching on the court or attending to matters off the court?
“We spend an equal amount of time off and on the court. There’s the academics, trying to keep tabs on everyone, recruiting and lots of other problems. We have two kids on our team who don’t even know where their next meal is coming from.”
What’s the most rewarding part of being a junior college coach?
“It’s seeing these kids move on and do something with their lives. I think about a guy like Nathan Proulx. He went to Greater Lowell Tech, then he came here, he went on to UMass Boston and got his masters. Now he’s a teacher and doing some coaching.”
How important is it to have a good assistant coach?
“It’s a must. I went through three assistants before (current assistant) Joe (Tardif). We work well together and he does so much for the program. If he left, I don’t even know if I’d still be coaching.”
What’s his greatest contribution?
“Joe sees the big picture and he teaches life-long lessons. He’s a good teacher on and off the court.”
How far do you have to go on road trips?
“A lot of our teams are so far away, in Rhode Island, Connecticut, down near New York. We went to a game in Bristol, Connecticut right before Thanksgiving. Because of the traffic, it took three hours to get there. Then the game went into double overtime. We stopped to get a quick bite to eat and then we came home ... we didn’t get back to the college until 1:37 a.m.
“But it was a great game and we won. It’s probably one of the best games I’ve had the pleasure to coach.”
What’s the biggest misconception about junior college basketball?
“Some people look at it as a lower tier of basketball. They don’t realize how good the competition is, that we’re often playing with and against scholarship players. I wish more people would come watch and see how good it is.
“The other thing is that it’s not just about the basketball. Junior college is so much more cost effective and there as many benefits. And you do well, you’ve got automatic admission to a state school. You can’t beat that.”
What do you do to relax?
“Just getting away after the season with my wife and kids. Right now, I’m really enjoying helping coach my son Cameron’s seventh grade travel team. To me, that’s relaxing.”
What do you see yourself doing in 10 years?
“Probably doing what I’m doing now, coaching either on the collegiate or high school level. I just really love coaching — being with the kids, the comaraderie, the competition.”
TV Show: Sons of Anarchy
Movie: Remember the Titans
Book: Any basketball book
Restaurant: Michael Jordan’s restaurant at Mohecan Sun
Coach: Mike Krzyzewski ... what he does every year is amazing
Athlete: Paul Pierce
Vacation spot: Atlantis in the Bahamas