Attempting to explain its sporting secret dominance
STEPHEN ROTHMAN/THE GLOBE: Mamaroneck Varsity Ice Hockey team poses after winning the school’s first state title in the sport
With more than a week gone by since the Mamaroneck Ice Hockey team returned home from Buffalo as state champions, we’ve all had some time to reflect. Even with that time, I’ve still struggled to put into perspective what exactly is going on in Mamaroneck. Dating back to the fall of 2014, the Tigers’ sports program has won an incredible seven state championships; that takes more fingers to count than seasons played.
A few weeks ago, when I was walking through the overpass, one student remarked, “I hate when athletes miss school the day after they win a state championship.” I didn’t realize it until a few days later, but this student had a point: athletes are constantly absent from school the Monday after winning a state title. The problem with the statement, however, is not that athletes are missing school; rather, it is the fact that it’s happened so many times in the last two years that people are noticing trends, and assertions like these are able to be made. As strange as it sounds, there’s almost a sense of normalcy about winning state championships in Mamaroneck. We’ve all come to expect excellence.
If you were wondering why that is, you weren’t alone; I was curious, too. So, I decided to do some research and gather the opinions that really matter – the ones housed inside of those either yelling from the sideline or doing the work on the playing surface itself.
The field hockey program was responsible for bringing the winning ways to Mamaroneck in the Fall of 2014. Like many of the other sports that have recently won titles, field hockey is expensive. When asked about the general expenses of the sport, Sophie Miller ’17, a member of both the 2014 and 2015 teams, said, “Good sticks are about $100, and you have to buy goggles, shin guards and shoes on top of that. Club teams cost a ton of money – like club teams do for all sports – and you have to play on a club team if you want to get recruited. For camps, [Coach] Miller and [Coach] Savage run a bunch of things for [the team] over the summer, before preseason, which the players have to pay for; school doesn’t support anything before preseason begins in August.” All of a sudden, three-digit totals dip into the four-digit range.
Field hockey’s counterpart, ice hockey, is even more expensive. According to momsteam.com, ice hockey is the most expensive youth sport. When you factor in league fees ($2500), travel expenses ($4,000), equipment ($2,000), and skate sharpening ($135), the grand total, according to KSDK.com, eclipses an astonishing $8,600 annually. Numbers like these make you realize why some Section 1 schools don’t even have ice hockey (or field hockey) teams. Other districts are forced to link up in order to have enough players for the roster. Rye Town/Harrison and Rivertown are two prime examples of this.
Cost is among the biggest challenges when it comes to youth sports, but it’s perhaps one of the reasons Mamaroneck is able to rise above the opposition. These barriers arise as early as elementary school when kids begin to get involved in travel programs; travel team parents spend an average of $2,266 each year on their child’s participation. According to the Aspen Institute, in 2015, about one in three parents (32%) from households making less than $50,000 per year told researchers that sports cost too much. According to point2homes.com, the average annual income in Mamaroneck is $161,420. To give you a broader picture of the relationship between wealth and athletic success, the three other teams that made the state semifinals for baseball last year, Connetquot ($98,193), Saratoga Springs ($86,757), and Orchard Park ($100,156), all have average annual incomes that are well-above the $50,000 per year threshold. Income is not the be-all, end-all predictor for success in youth sports, but it can be a useful barometer.
While income determines the exposure to high-end coaching and competition, it also contributes to whether or not kids get involved at all. Studies done by the Aspen Institute show that only 24.6% of eighth graders in “low socioeconomic schools” participate in sports, compared to 36.1% in “high socio-economic schools.” When you consider the pool of talent derived from the affluent community of Mamaroneck, you begin to comprehend why sports teams are competitive year in and year out.
Good coaching is essential to success in sports. Coaching legends such as Phil Jackson, Joe Paterno, and Mike Krzyzewski have been able to get the most out of their players, and, in turn, win multiple championships. According to the Aspen Institute, there was a 95% retention rate for athletes whose coaches received training in skills and communicating effectively with kids. When athletes come through Mamaroneck High School, they have the unique opportunity to be coached by some of the best in the state, such as field hockey coach John Savage, a threetime state champion (’04, ‘14, and ‘15), and Westchester Sports Hall of Famer Mike Chiapparelli. Both have made a habit of winning, and as the years go by, all they seem to do is keep adding to their resumés.
Since 2004, Mamaroneck field hockey has played in 12 straight sectional championships, winning nine of them, nine regional championships, winning seven of them, and seven state championship games, winning three of them; all four losses in state championships were one-goal games. When asked what has set apart the teams from the last two years, Coach Savage replied, “Since 2004, the only difference, I feel, was we got a couple of lucky bounces. The 2014 team was probably the most talented [I’ve coached], and we were clearly the best by a big margin – very little need for luck. So, the short answer is both teams worked hard, smart and together. Each group was willing to put in extra time to become the best they could be.” Although Savage is ultimately responsible for the success of the program, he deferred much of the credit to other coaches, recognizing the importance of the junior varsity coach, Tricia Miller, who has worked with him for 18 years; Kathleen Dwyer, the modified coach (15 years); and Amanda Grant, who was a starter on the 2004 championship team. When a coach has people that he knows and trusts at his disposal, the entire process becomes easier. While Savage might only have direct contact with players on varsity for two or three years, his philosophy is able to be taught as soon as any seventh grader with strong desire to succeed steps on the field. His philosophy? “Be a family and care for each other on and off the field. Lift each other up on bad days and give 100% every second you practice and play in games. If you can look each other in the eyes and know you did everything humanly possible to help your team succeed, then you are perfect.”
A 1974 graduate of Mamaroneck High School, Chiapparelli decided to return to MHS as a physical education teacher; and, boy, it was a good thing that he did. Fresh off his first state title in the sport, Chiapparelli has a 437- 227-27 record since he took over as the head coach of the hockey team in 1986. On the diamond, “Chap” has amassed a career record of 530-229-4 since becoming the head coach in 1985, leading the program to three state titles in the last eight years (‘08, ‘09, ‘15).
“I think, […] it was the field hockey team winning that first state championship. All the kids in the hallway were like, ‘They won a state championship? Why can’t we win a state championship?,” he responded, when asked why he thought Mamaroneck has been so good at sports recently. “Following Savage’s model, I think I was very similar. […] The coaches start seeing that we put kids in nice uniforms, we do preseason conditioning, we work them really hard, we play a really hard schedule, and I think it’s all come together and produced state championship-caliber players,” he added. When asked of the differences between the athletes of the past two years and the athletes before them that didn’t win state titles, Chiapparelli said, “I think the fact that the coaches go into the season saying, ‘Hey, guys, we’re playing for the league, section, state championship right now. This is what you have to do.’, […] and I think they do it with the attitude that we can do it.”
With constantly changing rosters from year to year, “Chap” credits the athletes of the past as part of the reason the athletes of today have reached this level of success. “You know, the confidence that you can do it, by the past players having done it, helps these kids right now pursue the dreams of trying to win a state championship.”
One thing that remains constant, though, is Chiapparelli, and as he’s gained more experience, he’s become better. “I’ve lost a lot of tough games along the way, so I kind of learned how to handle the big games. I’ve learned how to take the emotion out of my coaching […] and I try to be smarter and think [about] how to help the kids win, as opposed to willing them to win,” Chiapparelli remarked. With experience and improvement has come the knowledge of what it takes to build a winner. “I also think I prepare the kids; I challenge my kids. We go to California playing baseball, we go upstate to play the best teams. I challenge my kids to play the best and once they play them, they’re like, ‘They’re not that good compared to us. Why can’t we beat them?’ Then they realize the mental part’s gone, now it’s just the physical part of training and producing.”
In his time at Mamaroneck, “Chap” has created a culture that has been an integral part of Mamaroneck’s accomplishments. His coaching philosophy – “work hard, play with class, win.” – is a testament to the success he’s had, and shows why kids just starting teeball can only dream of playing for him.
One intangible reason for Mamaroneck’s recent achievements that numbers can’t support is team chemistry – both on and off the ice. Two-year captain of the varsity hockey team, Jason Bienstock ‘16, described the dynamic of this past year’s team, saying, “The dynamic of our team was unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of. Regardless of who we were friends with outside of the rink, we were brothers in the locker room and on the ice.” Growing up as a hockey player in Mamaroneck (or any sport, for that matter), it’s inevitable that you’ll be playing with the same kids throughout your childhood. From the time a hockey player can barely walk until his or her senior year of high school, they show up to the rink seeing the same faces. This season, those bonds were evident on the ice. “The fact that we’ve been playing together for so long has given us a lot of chemistry that was hard to stop. We knew each other’s tendencies on the ice, and we were able to react to things before they happened,” Bienstock added. As I mentioned earlier, some hockey teams from section 1 are a combination of several high schools – an obstacle that Mamaroneck isn’t forced to face.
After all the research and the interviews, nothing jumps off the page. Yes, Mamaroneck is filled with talent. Yes, Mamaroneck is a “high socio-economic school district.” Yes, Mamaroneck has some really good coaches. So what, though? Aren’t there at least 10-20 other school districts throughout the state that fit the same criteria? Yes, there probably are. So, in my opinion, Mamaroneck stands out from the crowd by doing the little things better than everybody else. The coaches put in more time than other coaches, the players train harder and longer than other players, and the expectations of the program exceed those of other programs. In sports, there is a slim margin for error, and, recently, it appears as though that margin has been just big enough to put Mamaroneck on the map.
By Stephen Rothman