Weekly Feature



2018-07-12 / Sports

Trio share Bee’s Coach of the Year honors

Two of them pushed their respective squads the furthest they’ve ever been in postseason play this year, while the other helped his team nearly multiply its win total five times over.

Needless to say, West Seneca East’s Jim Maisano, along with West Seneca West’s Kevin Rozo and Desmond Randall, all made compelling cases for selection as the West Seneca Bee Coach of the Year for the 2017-18 school year — which is why the trio is sharing the honor, giving The Bee its first tri-Coaches of the Year since the award was christened almost a decade ago.

Both Maisano’s boys lacrosse team at East and Rozo’s boys hockey team at West enjoyed greater success this year after doing pretty well the previous season. Maisano’s squad came up just short of a sectional title during the spring of 2017 after being upended by Grand Island, 10-6, in the Class C title game, while Rozo’s group was upended by North Tonawanda, 4-1, in its Small Schools prequarterfinal during its 2016-17 campaign. Randall’s basketball squad at West, however, made a complete 180-degree turnaround from last season in his first year of guiding the club, putting up more wins this winter alone than it had over the previous four seasons combined.

Maisano: “Player development key”

East had a large chunk of returning players from its 2017 roster this spring, but that didn’t mean the Trojans had clear sailing in their return to the sectional final. In fact Maisano, along with assistant coach Mikey Balla, a 2012 program alum, “had to keep team chemistry together on both sides of the ball” in an early challenge to the team’s plans when East saw up to four of its five top defensemen out of the lineup due to injury at one point. Fortunately, Maisano and Balla were up to the task.

“Obviously having four defensemen out weakened our ability to stop teams from scoring, but it also caused frustration and pressure on our offensive players to carry the load,” said Maisano, who was also the West Seneca Bee Coach of the Year for the 2011-12 school year. “We were fortunate to have quite a bit of firepower on offense, and we also had the luxury of having two college-bound goaltenders who were able to bail us out of some jams on multiple occasions this season.

“I think it just came down to letting the players play their game to the best of their ability, yet at the same time keeping their focus on our team goals and also managing the many strong and unique personalities that we had this season. It was a truly special group of kids to work with this year.”

Part of getting the most out of this year’s group undoubtedly was the influence that Maisano’s youth program, the Trojan Lacrosse Association, had on a large portion of the players. Maisano noted that this year’s crop of seniors “were the pioneers of the program, with many of them starting with its inception eight or 
Jim Maisano, who is sharing The West Seneca Bee Coach of the Year honors for the 2017-18 school year, piloted West Seneca East’s boys lacrosse team to its first Section VI title in program history this spring. The Trojans ultimately reached the state Class C semifinals before having their season ended. 
Photo by Dan NesselbushPurchase color photos at www.BeeNews.com Jim Maisano, who is sharing The West Seneca Bee Coach of the Year honors for the 2017-18 school year, piloted West Seneca East’s boys lacrosse team to its first Section VI title in program history this spring. The Trojans ultimately reached the state Class C semifinals before having their season ended. Photo by Dan NesselbushPurchase color photos at www.BeeNews.com nine years ago, and 90 percent of them joining soon after.” Having that familiarity with one another’s tendencies only helped with the on-the-field production for East, which won its first sectional title in program history en route to reaching the state Class C semifinals during its 12-9 effort this spring.

“This year’s bunch of seniors have been playing together for a long time, as have the classes behind them, and I really think that makes a difference,” Maisano said. “I try to develop a singular program from the youth level on up, starting as young as kindergarten. I really feel that the success a varsity team experiences is directly related to how those players are developed throughout their careers.”

Maisano’s own development as a player, under the watchful eye of Western New York lacrosse coaching legend Stefan Henn of Amherst, certainly played a role in forming his coaching philosophy. Maisano, who said he “fell in love with the game in eighth grade” when he started to attend camps with his best friend, was a part of Amherst’s inaugural boys lacrosse squad in 1994 and started for Henn’s Tigers for three seasons before playing at the Division I level at Canisius.

Maisano gave back to the program — and the man — who gave him so much upon completing his college education, serving as an assistant at Amherst to start his career before moving over to East as a teacher in the fall of 2001. He’s been the boys’ lacrosse coach for the Trojans ever since, and though his tenure at East has also included stints coaching field hockey, basketball, wrestling and football at various levels, Maisano still looks to Henn as being the one to put him on his current path.

“I wanted to be a physical education teacher and coaching goes hand-in-hand with that,” Maisano said. “I just love what I do, and I can honestly say that much of my coaching success goes back to what Stefan taught me going as far back as 1992. He’s the one who put a stick in my hand in eighth grade and coached me as a player, who taught me how to coach as his assistant, and who still gives me great advice to this day.”

Maisano stays up on the current trends to keep things fresh both in practice and in games, part of which comes through chatting with former players of his such as Balla and Ethan Murphy. Having some of his former players on the coaching staff over the years just helps to reinforce that family dynamic that has played a role in how Maisano approaches his squads year in and year out.

“I’m a big web guy, surfing the web for lots of different things to try and find things I feel will work for the kids, but I also really like to talk to former players who either are in or have recently played in college to get new perspectives from them as well,” Maisano said. “Guys like Ethan and Mikey have shown me a lot of what they did in college, which is great. I think it helped us be one of the only seven Section VI schools to ever reach the state final four in boys lacrosse, which is just a tremendous thing for this program. But, I think being able to watch seven of our graduating players sign letters of intent to play in college next year was just a really special part of what we did this season.”

Rozo gets players to “buy in”

Though there isn’t necessarily a centralized youth program like Maisano’s TLA for West hockey players to create the same kind of group bond, Rozo believes that having taught many of the Indians and worked with them on the ice since they were in eighth grade allowed this year’s squad to ultimately have the cohesiveness that led to their first-ever appearance in the state championship game this winter.

“We had a very close-knit group this year, with many of these kids being students of mine going back to the classroom in eighth grade,” Rozo said. “Having that familiarity, I think, just simply helped set up a culture that they wanted to be a part of. In the end, it just comes down to getting a bunch of guys who, while they do go to the same school usually have different hockey backgrounds, to come together and buy into what we’re doing. We’ve been fortunate at West in that we usually do have a decent amount of talent, but it’s the teams that buy in and play for each other that almost always have the most success.”

This year’s bunch, especially those who came back from the squad that had its playoff appearance cut far short of expectations, bought in early, which helped with the cohesion between those returning players — some of whom were stepping up in responsibility this past winter — and the players joining the varsity squad for the first time. But, it was easy to see why everyone got on the same page with Rozo when you consider just how much passion he has for the sport.

Rozo played hockey himself in Amherst — mostly as a goalie — from his days at the AAA level in youth leagues through high school at Williamsville South, where the Billies lost in the state finals during his senior season in 1994. He went on to play lacrosse collegiately at Canisius, where he was inducted into the 
Kevin Rozo, at right in the background, has been the only coach West Seneca West’s hockey team has known since it joined the Western New York Federation league a decade ago. Rozo, one of this year’s West Seneca Bee co-Coach of the Year honorees, helped the squad earn its second sectional title during his tenure this winter and ultimately guided the Indians to their first-ever appearance in the state championship game. 
File photo by Jason NadolinskiPurchase color photos at www.BeeNews.com Kevin Rozo, at right in the background, has been the only coach West Seneca West’s hockey team has known since it joined the Western New York Federation league a decade ago. Rozo, one of this year’s West Seneca Bee co-Coach of the Year honorees, helped the squad earn its second sectional title during his tenure this winter and ultimately guided the Indians to their first-ever appearance in the state championship game. File photo by Jason NadolinskiPurchase color photos at www.BeeNews.com Canisius College Hall of Fame in 2012, and has coached that sport in the district as well, primarily as an assistant, for the past 19 years. But when it came time for West hockey to make the switch from a club sport to varsity, Rozo was more than eager to throw his hat in the ring.

He’s been the only head coach the Federation program has ever known, and he’s loved every minute of it, including the run to the only other sectional championship back during the 2012-13 season.

“I grew up skating and playing hockey as soon as I learned to walk, so it’s always been my passion,” Rozo said. “When we went Fed and the varsity job opened it was a no brainer; I pretty much jumped on it immediately. I think I bring a passion for the sport and set up a good overall structure for the program and for the kids to succeed. If I had to narrow it down to one thing I think I let the players just be who they are and play. Obviously we want to win but I want their high school hockey experience to be a fun one with their friends that they will always remember.”

This past winter was about as fun of an experience that a team can have in high school sports, as the Indians claimed their second Fed Small Schools title in program history with a harrowing 2-1 win over Sweet Home that saw Game MVP Noah Sobczak make a number of spectacular saves — including one on a penalty shot — to help West secure the victory. The Indians then took down Canandaigua in the regional round by an identical 2-1 margin to advance to the state semifinals for the first time in program history, where they took down John Jay, 3-0, to play for a state title for the first time ever.

And though Sweet Home got the best of West, 7-5, in the rematch of the Fed final, Rozo and his players still put together the best campaign (18-6-1-1 overall) ever for a West hockey squad.

“Winning at the KeyBank Center this year was huge, since a Section VI championship is always our goal, but also getting to the state finals and being a part of a group that’s gone the furthest we’ve ever gone as a program was just the icing on the cake this year,” Rozo said. “The year goes by fast and is over before you know it, so it was just really fun getting to enjoy the ride with these guys. We just got a ton of support this year from the parents, our Athletics Director Vinny Dell’Oso, the district in general and the West Seneca West Sports Boosters. Plus, my coaching staff, which included Mike Vastola and Matt DiFlavio, as well as our trainer, Jessica Raniero; their support made all of this possible. It was an incredible ride for West sports across the board this year, and I appreciate how everyone in the community came together for one another.”

Like Maisano, Rozo — who credits his high school coach, Sean Greene, for helping mold his coaching philosophy — scours every available source to keep up on the current coaching trends, and this offseason will be no different.

“I’m always looking for new ideas and new drills to use,” Rozo said. “I have my Level 4 USA Hockey certification, and actually I also coach the modified hockey team now just to get a different perspective. If a team is practicing before us and I see a drill I like, I’ll video it and use it. And just last week I spent some time down at the Sabres’ prospect camp — I go most years — just to see some of the things they are doing, because one thing I’ve learned over the years is that you’ve got to keep it fresh.”

Randall comes home

Unlike Maisano and Rozo, Randall came into the winter both unfamiliar with his players — though his coaching career began as a JV assistant at West, he had spent the previous two seasons as the varsity coach at Timon — and not having the base of success that both East lacrosse and West hockey had enjoyed over the past few seasons. But, that didn’t matter to the former Indian star, who had played four full seasons at the varsity level and served as captain in his final two years.

“My model that I like to go by is ‘get better every day, because I’m constantly trying to improve every single day as a man, coach and mentor,” Randall said. “There is so much to learn and so much knowledge out there about the game that, as a coach, you should always be improving and evolving. I like to stay current and up to date so my style or teams can change from year to year. I am a players and personnel coach, so what I do can change from year to year or team to team because I’m going to always find or adjust to whatever I need to do in order for my teams to be successful.”

Once he got to work with this year’s group, many of whom got an unusually late start to the season thanks to their play on West’s state champion football squad in the fall, Randall got to work developing a strategy to maximize the talent on this year’s squad — and there was plenty of it, even if some outside observers might have doubted it based on the previous winter’s five-win campaign. Randall, who noted that he got into coaching the sport, his “first love,” so that he could work with younger brother Juston Johnson, constantly found ways to keep his players “motivated, hungry, humble, excited and always ready to go,” and that style was certainly apparent given the Indians’ early and often dominant triumphs.


West Seneca West boys basketball coach Desmond Randall helped turn the Indians around from a club that won just five games the previous season to a squad that went 24-1 overall this past winter. Randall, one of the West Seneca Bee co-Coach of the Year honorees for the 2017-18 school year, is the first to receive the honor while coaching at his alma mater since Phil Prynn was awarded the honor four years ago. 
File photo by Jason NadolinskiPurchase color photos at www.BeeNews.com West Seneca West boys basketball coach Desmond Randall helped turn the Indians around from a club that won just five games the previous season to a squad that went 24-1 overall this past winter. Randall, one of the West Seneca Bee co-Coach of the Year honorees for the 2017-18 school year, is the first to receive the honor while coaching at his alma mater since Phil Prynn was awarded the honor four years ago. File photo by Jason NadolinskiPurchase color photos at www.BeeNews.com “The first time I ever coached, at a camp in college at Maine, I realized I liked it and that it was something I could see myself doing — and once I started coaching here in Buffalo, it just kind of took off and became clear that this is what I’m called to do,” Randall said. “I just got here to West and wanted to build off a great foundation that they already had and give this group of determined guys something that they could trust and believe in.”

It’s safe to say the Indians bought into Randall’s philosophies early, often and thoroughly. By the time the season was over, West set 16 different team records, including for overall (24) and league wins (12), overall (24-1) and league records (12-0), and most points for (106) and fewest points against (35). Additional records on the offensive side of the ball included most three-point baskets made in a game (18) and season (236), most assists in a game (33) and season (418), and most points scored in a season (2,035) and per game (81.4). Defensively, the Indians also set records for most steals in a game (24), season (380) and per game (15.2).

Yet even with all of the successes West achieved this winter, Randall admits there were still times where he had to work to tune out the naysayers from outside the program who, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, still didn’t give the Indians the credit they so richly deserved.

“I feel like the biggest obstacle I faced this year was ignoring the outside negativity,” Randall said. “There were a lot of things being said about us and a lot of people not believing we were as good as our record said for many different reasons, and that was hard on us — but it was particularly hard on me because my guys worked so hard and earned every bit of success. I didn’t like people trying to short-change that. But it was also probably the best thing for me as a coach because it gave me ammo and helped me keep them motivated.

“This group, from day one, was hungry; they were tired of losing and tired of being the pushover,” Randall said. “Once we started winning we wanted to keep that hunger that got us there, and in order to do so we had to remain humble, understanding we wouldn’t be fully satisfied until we won every championship possible.”

Randall, who praises his father as his top mentor while also acknowledging basketball coaching legends such as Shaka Smart, Brad Stevens, John Beilein, Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari as being among his favorites to study, also worked hard this season to stay in the moment, to follow a “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy. Of course, when you’re obliterating foes by 20 or more points virtually every time out, you have to be ready with new wrinkles the second time you face that squad — and that’s something

Randall and his team took very seriously.

“I had to keep telling myself to basically stick with what was working and not to out-coach myself because I’m getting anxious wanting to try my new stuff or apply new knowledge,” Randall said. “There’s certainly small adjustments you can make when they’re needed, but when you haven’t lost you just want to stick with whatever you are doing. I actually didn’t even really realize what we were doing, in relation to last year’s team, until about midway through the season, because that’s when it started to be talked about a lot.”

Randall, who cited both the team’s Class A-1 and overall Class A title wins at Buffalo State as the best moments of his first year guiding the varsity club, knows that the bulls-eye that was already pretty big on the Indians’ back by the end of the season will be even larger this upcoming winter. That’s why, like Maisano and Rozo, he’s already hard at work researching ways to keep his squad energized and focused for the upcoming season.

“I definitely want us to defend our sectional championships next year and then go even further to where we hopefully can win a state title and, possibly, even a Federation title,” Randall said. “To that end, I’m checking out videos, articles, books ... pretty much anything I can get my hands on so that I can be an even better coach. I want to do something every day so that I live up to my ‘get better every day’ model that I preach to the kids. And I’ll be coaching AAU ball all summer, which is another good way for me to sharpen my tools.”

email: jnadolinski@beenews.com

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