Portland edition Winter Coaches of the Year

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Winter 2010-11 Coach of the Year-Boys’ Team

JOE RUSSO—Portland Basketball

After coaching varsity boys’ basketball for over two decades and winning a pair of state titles, it’s pretty hard to produce the best job of your career, but many feel that longtime Portland coach Joe Russo did that very thing this winter.

Attempting to mold a very untested crew, Russo appeared flummoxed with five games to go. The Bulldogs were coming off a one-sided loss at Cheverus which dropped them to 6-7 on the season. Nearly throwing in the towel, Russo pledged to make the remainder of the year tolerable for his seniors, but it wound up being much, much more.

Somehow, Russo’s button-pushing paid off. Portland didn’t lose another regular season game, made the tournament, upset South Portland and nearly beat seemingly invincible Cheverus before the run came to an end in the semifinals.

The Bulldogs didn’t just salvage their season, they made it something special.

For turning things around at the last moment and for being unrivaled at bringing a team along during the course of a season, Joe Russo is The Forecaster’s choice for our Portland edition Winter Coach of the Year, of a boys’ team.

Russo has bled blue and white for over four decades. The Munjoy Hill native played three years of varsity basketball at Portland High (along with three of baseball and one of football) and was part of an undefeated team as a junior in 1974 (which was upset by Westbrook in the semifinals). He played four years of basketball at the University of Maine-Presque Isle and was a captain as a junior and senior (Russo was inducted into the UMPI Hall of Fame in 1996).

Right out of college, at the age of 22, Russo became the junior varsity boys’ coach at Portland. He served three years as the Bonny Eagle varsity coach, then came home in 1990 to become the Bulldogs’ varsity coach. He’s won 292 games as the Portland coach (eclipsed the 300 mark overall) and captured a Gold Ball in 1999 and 2004.

This year’s team was an unproven entity, but did it ever peak at the right time.

“In terms of coaching, I rank this year up there with the state championships,” Russo said. “The player development and team improvement was gratifying. The kids were fun to coach and watch. They showed that nothing’s impossible. We don’t have a feeder program. It’s takes awhile for the kids to get used to each other.”

Russo, who has taught health and physical education at PHS for 21 years, lives in Portland and is the father of two boys and a girl. He’s not sure how long he’ll continue to coach, but hopefully will be around for many years.

Like a fine wine, this mentor simply gets better with age. Joe Russo, our Portland edition Winter boys’ Coach of the Year, arguably just delivered his piece de resistance.

Cheverus coach Bob Brown’s comment: “What Joey does as well as anyone is that he figures you out by the end. I thought this year he did as good a coaching job as he’s ever done. He really liked this group and they liked him. His kids had the right attitude and they played hard. That’s a tribute to him.”

2009-10 winner: Bob Brown (Cheverus Basketball)

2008-09 winner: Kevin Haley (Cheverus Swimming)

2007-08 winner: Bob Brown (Cheverus Basketball)

2006-07 winner: Bob Brown (Cheverus Basketball)

2005-06 winner: Dan LeGage (Deering Basketball)

2004-05 winner: Jack Lowry (Cheverus Hockey)

2003-04 winner: Joe Russo (Portland Basketball)

Winter 2010-11 Portland Coach of the Year–Girls’ team

AMY VACHON, McAuley Basketball

While Amy Vachon has long enjoyed the Midas Touch, she faced a daunting challenge this winter.

Taking over one of the state’s pre-eminent programs, one which was starving for a championship, Vachon faced plenty of pressure.

Yet, she embraced it.

Admitting that the Lions were the favorite from the get-go, Vachon made an immediate impact with her talented new charges, got the most out of some very diverse talents and led McAuley back to the Promised Land.

Featuring calmness and composure on the sidelines, even in the midst of heartstopping finishes, Vachon proved that she’s just as talented a coach as she was a player (which is saying a lot) and a happy ending ensued.

For making the most of her opportunity and for guiding the Lions to glory, Amy Vachon gets The Forecaster’s nod as our Winter 2010-11 Portland edition Coach of the Year, of a girls’ team.

Vachon has long been one of the best known female athletes in the state. She starred for her father, legendary Cony coach Paul Vachon, and wound up winning the Miss Maine Basketball award in 1996. She was also a field hockey standout in college.

At the University of Maine, Vachon continued to build on her legend as a standout player. Success in the coaching ranks took longer.

Right out of college, Vachon coached the Waterville girls’ program for one season, then didn’t coach at the high school level again until 2008-09, when she assisted Billy Goodman at Greely.

“Basketball’s such a big part of my life,” Vachon said. “I just needed a break.”

This season, Vachon inherited a McAuley squad which made it to the semifinals the previous winter and boasted two Division I-bound players, senior Rebecca Knight and junior Alexa Coulombe.

While the Lions were clearly an elite team, a championship didn’t come easily as McAuley had a fierce rival down Stevens Avenue, the Deering Rams, that proved to be every bit its equal. The Lions won the first meeting with Deering, rallying for an overtime win on the road, but the next time out, McAuley was upset at Gorham. A regular season-ending home loss to Deering dropped the Lions to the No. 2 seed.

Vachon and her staff had McAuley at its best come tournament time. The Lions had their way with South Portland and Gorham in their first two games, then somehow escaped Deering in the regional final. Twice, with Deering standout Kayla Burchill primed to shoot pivotal foul shots, Vachon called timeout. Both resulted in misses and McAuley advanced to the state final, where it had its way with Hampden Academy, capping a sensational campaign with a Gold Ball.

“The state championship was the goal and expectation,” Vachon said. “I’m happy with how we became a team and adjusted to the coaches’ expectations.”

Vachon is very different from her father (now the athletic director at Cony) in temperament, but she credits him for playing a big role in her professional life .

“He’s a huge influence,” she said. “So supportive. He was very emotional and I’m just the opposite.”

Vachon is a guidance counselor in the Westbrook school system and lives in Saco. She’ll have another very talented team again in 2011-12.

That doesn’t bode well for the rest of the state. Amy Vachon, our Portland edition Winter girls’ Coach of the Year, has demonstrated that she’s every bit as good a coach as she was a player and that figures to spell more glory in the years to come.

McAuley athletic director Joe Kilmartin’s comment: “Amy’s just a terrific person. We had some very good candidates for this job, but there’s no doubt we made the right choice. From Xs and Os on, she’s totally organized. She had everything planned. Her overall sideline demeanor was great. She had great rapport with the kids.”

2009-10 winner: J.P. Lavoie (Cheverus Hockey)

2008-09 winner: Mike Murphy (Deering Basketball)

2007-08 winner: John Smith (McAuley Swimming)

2006-07 winner: Jan Veinot (Waynflete Basketball)

2005-2006 winner: Kevin Campbell (Deering Indoor track)

2004-2005 winner: Lindsay Reagan (Waynflete Nordic skiing)

2003-2004 winner: Mike D’Andrea (Deering Basketball)

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Sports Editor of The Forecaster since 2001. Find detailed game stories at theforecaster.net. I tweet prodigiously at @foresports.