Pictured: After 31 seasons coaching Coginchaug’s boys basketball program, Todd Salva is down to the final two games of his 400-plus-wins career. (Photo by Paul Augeri)
By Paul Augeri
DURHAM – Three enjoyable hours of ice fishing two Sundays ago on Lake Beseck was the tipping point.
Todd Salva had such a good time with his brother waiting for bites that he thought, what if I want to do this next February? But on a weekday?
Wherein Salva, who already was two-thirds of the way into his 31st season as Coginchaug’s boys basketball coach, decided this would be it. He is retiring in June after 38 years as a Region 13 physical education instructor and has lined up his departure from teaching with his departure from a program he has been beholden to for almost six decades.
“I knew I was retiring from teaching this year,” Salva said after a recent win over North Branford. “The only question was, was I going to continue to coach? Everybody asked me that. In the back of my mind, if I did coach, it would be for one or two more years.”
On Tuesday night, when Coginchaug celebrates seniors Sam Whittle, Connor Willett, Jeremy Mangiameli, Colin Murphy, Francesco Marotta and Mekhi Watson before Tuesday’s game against Old Saybrook, it will be a night for Salva, too – the final home game of his career
“It should be about the seniors, but if people are coming because it’s my last home game, it’s just a bigger crowd for the seniors,” he said.
Before he made up his mind about whether to continue coaching, the excitement of not having to go to work next fall made Salva think about basketball, and whether he’d want to coach without being entrenched in the school community any longer.
“I just don’t know what retirement is going to bring,” Salva said. “If you’re going to be a head coach, you have to do the summer (preparation) stuff, you’ve gotta do the fall stuff, you’ve gotta do all the scouting stuff. You have to do all that suff. If retirement brings something on where I can’t do that, then I’m doing a disservice to the program.”
Ice fishing would be one of those things. Spending time with his grandsons whenever he pleases would be another.
“With my brother, we chatted about it and Lake Beseck is where I finally made up my mind,” Salva said. “I said, what if I wanted to do this next year? Instead, if I were still coaching, I’d be in the gym at 9 o’clock in the morning mapping out a week of practice.”
Salva is separating from a Durham-Middlefield-Rockfall system that loves its Coginchaug sports – and basketball has always been high in the pecking order. It’s a network of parents, educators, volunteers and the kids. And in recent years, the kids of kids Salva has coached along the way.
With so many years devoted to one program, Salva is one of those coaches from yesteryear. And Coginchaug is not like most schools. The great Wally Camp, first at Durham High School, which then became Coginchaug Regional, put Blue Devil basketball on the map. His Hall of Fame career spanned 1958 to 1990, with one state title and 11 Shoreline Conference championships. At the time of his retirement in 1990, Camp – with 508 wins – was one of just 15 Connecticut coaches to win 500 games.
Camp, who died in 2017 at the age of 87, once taught Salva in the school system. Salva coached in the system at Strong School and assisted Camp. Salva left the program to be the head coach at Vinal Tech in the late 1980s. After four years there, he succeeded his mentor and friend for the 1990-91 Coginchaug season.
That’s 64 seasons of basketball led by just two men. Salva has 408 career wins, two Shoreline titles in four finals appearances, three appearances in the state semifinals and was the Class S runner-up in 2016.
Coginchaug athletic director Todd Petronio once said if gets a young coach to stay five years with a program, he considers it a win.
“The middle school and the freshman jobs are revolving doors,” Salva said. “I was really lucky. I had John Forline, who was my assistant for over 25 years. John and I did all of the summer camps here together. Ryan (Doneker) came in, and he’s been here 13 years. I’ve been pretty lucky in that respect that I was able to have consistency with the coaching staff.”
Salva sees some young talent coming up into the high school and thought those eventual Blue Devils need a coach who can give a longer commitment than he would have.
“The program clearly is in a rebuild stage right now,” he said, “and I think they need someone who’s going to be here more than one or two years to do that. And that’s not me. So they’ve got to get someone to take the program in a direction that they want to go and utilize the talent that’s coming up. We made a lot of progress this year, but it’s still a little ways to go.”
In other words, you can’t commit and then not commit.
“Not if your heart’s in it and you want to do it right,” Salva said. “The other thing is, I’m not going to be in the school community when I retire. And I’ve always felt, you’ve got to know what’s going on in the school and you’ve got to know what’s going on with your kids. I think they need someone … I don’t want to be the outsider looking in. There’s a lot of coaches that do that, but that’s never been me.”
Coginchaug’s season will end with Wednesday’s game at Hale-Ray. The Blue Devils have won just three games heading Tuesday’s home finale and are out of contention for Shoreline and state tournament berths.
“I never worried about winning and losing and I tried to instill that in my kids. Winning takes care of itself. Do the right things in practice. Prepare yourself. Be ready. Do all the things in the offseason. Become the player in the offseason so when the season gets here, you can play. And if you can get kids to buy into that, the winning and losing just takes care of itself.
“Don’t get me wrong, I still hate losing. The game plays out the way the game plays out. That doesn’t change. The game hasn’t changed all that much.”
Salva said he’s always considered Coginchaug “a program” and not a team or teams.
“A program encompasses everyone from the schools and the school system, to the booster clubs and the parents,” he said. “I call it the school community. Everybody’s tied to it somehow.”
And he will remain tied to it, too, just at a distance.
“I’m really looking forward to taking my grandkids to basketball games now,” Salva said. “They’re almost 4 and 2 and I live three miles away. And all our family’s around. My wife and I will have to downsize, but I draw a circle around (daughter) Keri’s house for how far away I want to get, because I don’t want to miss that.”