SOUTHINGTON - After the Berlin boys tennis team fell to Southington on Wednesday afternoon, first-year head coach Mike Flannery walked up to his former mentor and shook his hand.
“I hope I can build this atmosphere on my own team,” Flannery said to the Blue Knights head coach Tony Mauro before hopping on the bus back to Berlin.
The atmosphere around Southington is one Flannery experienced first-hand in 2014 and 2015, when he was Mauro’s assistant coach. Now competing against Mauro, Flannery can’t help but hope his Redcoats team becomes a resemblance of what the 87-year-old Mauro has built just one town over from Berlin with the Blue Knights.
“Tony has a really good atmosphere, and I hope to build something like this at Berlin,” Flannery said. “I hope we can do that in the next few years.”
Flannery and Mauro spent much of Wednesday’s match side-by-side, conversing like they did when they were a part of the same coaching staff at Southington. After a two-year stop in Newington as an assistant coach, Flannery now is leading a team of his own, and Mauro has no doubt his former protégé will thrive in his new role.
“I’m happy with our culture and that’s what Mike will build,” Mauro said. “He’ll get the kids having fun and talking about it, and next thing you know he’ll have 25 kids. When he does, I’ll be the happiest guy around for him.”
First, a foundation will have to be laid, and the blueprint Flannery hopes to use is much like the one Mauro used to build a strong program with the Blue Knights. This project is already in motion, as Flannery has begun to adopt a “ladder system” at Berlin’s practices that Mauro uses with his own group, and did back when Flannery was his assistant.
“[Mauro] has a lot of competition in practices, and that builds a really good atmosphere,” Flannery said. “When you’re under pressure playing your friends, everyone wants to beat everybody. It makes you a better player. Tony has a really great thing going.”
The ladder system has been a product of Mauro’s coaching strategy for years, and begins at 4 a.m. with a cup of coffee and a piece of paper. From there, Mauro writes down the names of every player on his roster and ranks them, listing the players in a pyramid format, with his top singles player (in the most recent case, Matt Balaoing) at the top. During practice or even after matches, the Blue Knights will face off against each other for either a chance to move closer to the top of the pyramid, or to hold their spot as a regular singles or doubles player on the starting roster.
“It took a long time to get it to what it is now,” Mauro said. “I’ll have them play three full matches for their spots.”
The friendly competition helps ramp up the intensity in practice, and while Flannery’s pyramid and roster may be shorter in stature to Mauro’s, he already has one of his own in place. Mauro, now in his 13th season at Southington, has seen a lot of assistants move on to other roles in other schools. Wolcott, Platt and Newington all have head or assistant coaches that have played for or coached with Mauro, and many hope to capture what he has with the Blue Knights, Flannery included. So he stands and talks with Mauro as their two teams battle each other for a win, Flannery trying to soak up every bit of knowledge he may have missed in his two years under Mauro. According to Mauro, his pupil-turned-friendly opponent already knows almost everything he needs to be successful. All that is left is time.
“The guy is going to be perfect,” Mauro said. “He’s going to get that culture. It might take a year or two, but he’s going to do it. Mark my words.”
Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or firstname.lastname@example.org