A New Coach Takes Varsity Into Playoffs

By JOSHUA SABATINI

Monday evening the boys' varsity basketball team pours out from the locker room onto the hardwood floor and forms two lines for pregame layups.

First year head coach Ken Sanders, in a white oxford shirt, tie and black trousers, stands at center court watching his 12 players with a wide smile.

He walks over to one line and stays there until he's shaken and slapped hands with each player.

Coach Sanders returns to center court holding a basketball and talks with assistant coach Asil Cash, who also coaches the boys' junior varsity team, in the minutes before his team's penultimate game of the season, against the Dighton-Rehobeth Falcons.

As game time approaches, 10 Vineyard players huddle near the hoop. Mr. Sanders, standing in front of the home bench, sees two of his players stretching on the sidelines and invites them into the huddle.

For Coach Sanders, creating a family of his team comes naturally. The sense of brotherhood on the court has brought the team success. They enter the Division III state tournament with a 14-6 record, a dramatic improvement over last year's 12-10 finish.

"Last year, though we were a good basketball team, we just were not unified," said Coach Sanders, who coached the boys' junior varsity team last year. "It makes all the difference in the world when the players care about each other and take the time out to know each other as people and basketball players."

Coach Sanders brings his players together in a tight huddle before tipoff. After a few words from the coach, they lock hands in the center of the group and break with a deep shout of "Team!"

When the game begins, Mr. Sanders is seemingly two people at once. He sits quietly on the bench, absorbed in the action on the court. Suddenly, he jumps to his feet, gesturing and shouting instructions to his players. His intensity is contagious for the five players running the court.

Mr. Sanders, 30, came to the Island in the spring of 1999. Born in Huntington, Long Island, he spent his early childhood in Liveoak, Fla., a small agricultural town. The town is like the Island, but "it is a little nicer out here," Mr. Sanders says with a laugh. When he turned 12, he moved to Monticello, N.Y., and began to play basketball for the first time.

"I started late," says Mr. Sanders. "But if you want to practice, get out on the court and do it, catch up." Mr. Sanders was cut from his freshman team in high school and spent the next summer honing his skills. He made junior varsity and went on to play three years at the varsity level for the winning program. His late start on the court fostered a work ethic that he imparts to his players. Three and four-hour practices are not uncommon for his team.

In his last year on the high school varsity, Mr. Sanders experienced a heartbreaking moment. He lost a tough game in the state tournament when his team was defeated by one point - at the buzzer in overtime - for the right to go on to the state championship. The moment, he says, has stuck with him ever since. Mr. Sanders went on to serve for three years in the military. He was stationed in California and played on the base's basketball team.

All along, Mr. Sanders, inspired by his high school coach, wanted to become a coach himself. "My high school coach taught me how to love what you are doing," he says. "He taught me to understand the game."

Mr. Sanders takes coaching to a level rarely seen in high school competition. "I have seen a lot of coaches who did not get the most out of the kids. Many settled for a system that was good for the coach, that's easier for them. But every individual player has something different. You have to get what you can get out of the player and apply that to the team," Mr. Sanders says.

Everyone on Mr. Sanders's team sees playing time. Each player has a talent that can be of use for the team. "I always put the players in the position to be successful. In the last seven games, we've been able to use all 12 kids on the basketball team, which was our goal. It is working out. The kids know their role and respect it," he says.

The unity of the team was cemented at the start of the season when the team played eight consecutive off-Island games. The time on the road helped the players to understand one another. On the court, the players learned each other's strengths. "They depend on each other. It is like a family. We will have been together four months by the time this ends. It's been a growing process," says Coach Sanders. "There is unselfishness on the court. We are all one."

Mr. Sanders has one of the fastest teams in the division. The players excel in man-to-man defense and in the last six games have developed a fearsome full court press. "It keeps them in shape and alert," says Mr. Sanders.

Throughout the game, the team cohesion is evident everywhere. During free throws, players will wander over to the sidelines to talk to the coach; these conversations frequently end with a laugh and two smiles.

Mr. Sanders says: "Eighty per cent of my life is about laughing and having fun. When something funny happens on the court, I am not passing up the moment to laugh. If you play with your heart and soul, you can even laugh off a loss."

During timeouts, the team huddles. Mr. Sanders says most of what he does in the huddles is refresh the team by reminding them of the particulars, like "Remember, this guy's a shooter," or "He's left-handed."

Monday night, the Vineyarders are coasting with a steady 20-point lead over the Falcons. When the starters are benched with five minutes remaining, one player who sees little time on the floor finds himself on the foul line. When he sinks his first shot, the team on the bench erupts with cheers. When he sinks the second, the applause is even louder. The team walks off the court with an 86-60 victory.

Coach Sanders knows how it feels to lose a heartbreaker, and he tells his players about it as they head into the state tournament. "I let them know it is their team. It is not my team. I will be here when you are gone, but your team will not be. They understand that. They take it personally. They take that responsibility. That has been a real difference this year."

After his time in the military, Mr. Sanders returned to New York where he interned at his old high school as a basketball coach and worked with inner city youth. "The thing that got my team to understand me is that I treat my kids like people first. It is basketball last. It is people first, students second, then athletes," he says.

Mr. Sanders loves his team and the way they have grown on the court. He can talk passionately about the season and each player. "I played on a lot of good teams, but I have never seen a team with as much heart and will as this team. They just don't quit. No matter what happens the rest of the season, I will never forget that," he says.

With seven seniors on the team, Mr. Sanders knows this year is special. "This doesn't happen much. Hopefully we can go deep into the state tournament and it will be something they can talk about for the rest of their lives. That's what it did for me. It gave me the sense of being able to win on and off the court."

The pairings for the tournament, which begins next week, come out today. Mr. Sanders is looking for the golden moment. "The game doesn't owe you anything," he says. "I was born into the game, the game wasn't born into me. Even the great Michael Jordan would say the game didn't belong to him, the moment did."

He tells his players: "Going into the tournament, just play. When you don't finish the job, it hurts."

Mr. Sanders hopes the Island community will come out and support this team. "We have a chance to do something special. I hope the rest of the Vineyard won't miss it."