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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Sports > Awards/Milestones

2018-19 Sullivan County Democrat Boys Basketball Co-Coaches of the Year: Chris Russo and Fred Ahart

Mar 21, 2019

Chris Russo and the Monticello Panthers had a good season, upsetting Goshen in the Class A quarterfinals and giving Minisink Valley all they could handle in the semis.
As athletes reflect on the course of their lives, many will hearken back to the dramatic impact and influence that certain coaches played in the development of their character, self-confidence, perseverance, self-esteem, leadership and ability to work well with others.
For their tireless, unselfish commitment and devotion to the young men they mentor, their steadfast positive attitudes, and their unequivocal love of the game, Monticello boys' basketball Coach Chris Russo and Roscoe boys' basketball Coach Fred Ahart have been chosen as the 2018-19 Sullivan County Democrat Boys' Basketball Co-Coaches of the Year.
While some people view a coach's job to be about building a successful team that hopefully accrues wins and titles, that limited perspective lacks an understanding of the diverse and affirming roles coaches also play. Sadly coaches are often adjudged principally by their capacity to marshal victories.
But great coaches like Chris Russo and Fred Ahart are so much more. They are teachers whose mission extends far beyond instructing players on the fundamentals and nuances of the game.
Their lessons are enduring and life changing and the lives they shape go on to influence others in an ever-widening circle of positive deeds, love, upstanding values and life-long achievements.

Chris Russo

MONTICELLO -- Looking back on the season and assessing the 12-10 (4-4) Panthers' greatest achievement, Russo speaks first and foremost about his team's chemistry and character. “They enjoyed each other, played unselfishly and recognized their respective roles. They cared about winning, but more importantly, they cared about each other,“ he notes.
Needless to say the Section IX Class A quarterfinal win over Goshen was the team's greatest emotional high water mark. But no matter what the outcome of games were, or the record at the end of the season, Russo understands the greater importance of building relationships with his players.
“We see them in a different light, more than just in the classroom. It's important to understand the complexity of their lives; the challenges they face in school, at home and from other influences,” he adds. Russo loves being with his players. “The best part of my school day is when I'm at practice.”
In that regard his affinity for that quintessential part of his job mirrors that of legendary UCLA Men's Basketball Coach, the late John Wooden who once noted, “In the end, it's about the teaching, and what I always loved about coaching was the practices. Not the games, not the tournaments, not the alumni stuff. But teaching the players during practice was what coaching was all about to me.”
Russo understands that building a successful program is challenging. “There are a lot of moving parts,” he observes. Priorities are important in goal setting and for Russo those imparted to his team have a definitive hierarchical order: 1. Family, 2. Faith, 3. School and 4. Basketball.
In addition, consistency in coaching methodology and mindset is key in keeping the players on the same page as they come up through the ranks. Now in his 11th year of coaching the Monticello boys' varsity team, Russo attests to the lessons absorbed from his six-year junior varsity tour of duty under the inspiring mentorship of legendary Coach Dick O'Neill.
“I've also benefited from the consistency with my junior varsity coaches/assistants that included five years with Steve Matuszak, three years with Rick Sternkopf and now the added experience and skill of former Cornwall standout Harrison Larkin.
Russo's involvement with the game dates back to his playing at St. Peter's Prep in Jersey City, New Jersey where his athletic endeavors also included track and field and cross-country. After attending DeSales University and majoring in history and education, he worked as a graduate assistant at Mount St. Mary College while working on his Master's Degree. It was there where he met women's coach Randy Ognibene.
Russo worked at Roscoe from 1998-2001 during which time he got his first taste of coaching, mentoring the junior varsity girls and assisting Becky Ahart.
“Fred Ahart gave me my first chance at coaching. I'm truly honored to share this recognition with him. He's a great friend and a true mentor,” Russo avers. From Roscoe, Russo spent the next year teaching but not coaching at Washingtonville. During that year Ognibene recruited him to become an assistant coach of the MSMC women's team.
The following year he came to Monticello and the rest is history. To marshal success, basketball needs to be a year-round venture in some key respects. After the season is over Russo feels his players need to take some time away. But conditioning and strength training are ongoing. Many players move on to other sports, which Russo feels is a great way for them to learn from others and see themselves in a different competitive context.
For the past three years Monticello has hosted a summer league for boys basketball since the one at Sullivan County Community College is no longer happening. “There aren't a lot of AAU opportunities nearby and besides, the cost of many of them is out of reach for many of our kids.”
Russo has been an active member of the Basketball Coaches Association of New York (BCANY) since O'Neill encouraged him to join up in 2005. He has served as Vice President, President and is currently both the Section Nine Representative and the Executive Deputy Director. Each year he orchestrates the BCANY vs. Cancer tournament at Sullivan County Community College which has raised thousands of dollars for the Catskill Regional Oncology Unit.
BCANY holds an annual coaches clinic each July attended by college and high school coaches. “I try to learn as much as I can from other coaches,” Russo notes. “I read coaching books by the likes of Coach ‘K', Roy Williams and others and I watch a ton of college basketball. I can network with other coaches and ask them for pointers on things like how do you handle a 1-3-1 zone, etc.”
Russo is good friends with many of the coaches of teams Monticello battles against. “It's enjoyable and competitive. We have great respect for one another, something we try to instill in our players with their opponents. During time outs our players show that respect and focus. Learning how to pay attention is critical in the face of the distractions like the music, the fans etc.,” Russo observes.
Monticello will return four starters and a total of nine players next year but he cautions, “We can't rest on our laurels. I always remind the guys, don't be complacent.”
Russo minces no words in giving great credit to his wife Christine and his seven children for their loving support. “I couldn't do this without them,” he adds. In addition he posits, “Good coaches have good players.” He certainly does, not just in terms of their skills on the hardwood, but in their character and demeanor as well.
“It's a shared award,” he concludes.
Congratulations Coach Russo on a job well done.

Fred Ahart

ROSCOE -- As you enter the lobby of the Roscoe Central School District, you're greeted at the front desk by the Blue Devils' 2019 Section 9 Class D championship plaque. If you look straight ahead you'll see its future home -- the school trophy case -- where it's been 21 years since a Section 9 boys basketball title was added.
Roscoe finished their 2019 campaign with a 15-8 overall record. They went 4-2 in regular season league play, and upset rival Livingston Manor -- who hadn't lost a division game all season -- 45-44 in the Section 9 Class D Championship game. Coincidentally, the Blue Devils had lost by that same score to Manor in their second regular season meeting.
Their season came to an end in the state regionals when they fell to the nine-time state champion, Bridgehampton Killer Bees. This was yet another coincidence, as the last Roscoe team to win Class D, in 1998, also had their season come to an end at the hand of the Killer Bees.
At the helm of the Blue Devils team ­­-- for the 50th season -- is Fred Ahart who recently coached his 1,000th basketball game. That was a special night as it was also close friend and fellow coach S.S. Seward's Rob Gravelle's 500th game.
Several Roscoe graduates who had been a part of the team during the two seasons prior, which both ended in Section 9 Class D title losses, first to Seward in 2017, and to Manor in 2018, were in attendance at the upset win over Manor in the ‘D' title game. After the game, Ahart walked over and told them, “This one is for you guys.”
He added that the special relationship with Manor whose athletes are teammates with Roscoe in football, which is a team coached by Ahart, made the Section 9 title game even more special.
On being honored as the 2019 Sullivan County Democrat Boys Basketball Co-Coach of the Year, Ahart said, “I share this award and honor with assistant coach Mike Hill. We work very closely together. He's a big part of our success.”
Ahart also thanks his players, the Roscoe CSD administration, the community, and all involved in athletics in the area. “I share this with all those people,” he said.
Another special shoutout from Ahart goes to his family. His wife Becky, children and grandchildren are either still a part of the school's athletic program, or had been in the past. He thanks them for allowing him to do what he's done and loves for 50 years.
He also thanks Becky for all her help with their Section 9 work during the years, and in particular during this postseason as his Blue Devils were playing in the Section 9 playoffs.
Over the years, Ahart's been asked by many, who is his favorite team? His answer is always, “All of them.” However… “This team in particular, which had six seniors, was special because they were my 50th team,” Ahart said.
“They worked towards a common goal -- a Section 9 title -- from the start,” Ahart added. “They worked together to win it. They've played together [for years], in modified, JV and three years at varsity.”
This group has had great success, as they were on teams that won 13 games in 2017, 14 last season and had 15 wins this season -- many of which came against bigger schools.
As for what made the team successful, Ahart said with a smile, “Defense and running the floor. Our defense created our offense.”
Ahart, in praise of Coach Hill, noted that he plays a large role in developing the team's defense.
Ahart's number one philosophy has remained the same over the years. It's all about the kids and them having the opportunity to participate in athletics and have an enjoyable experience. He teaches them to play one game at a time. The most important game is the next one. He also lives by the mantra, “Respect all. Fear none.”
Crediting others is nothing new to Ahart and all who know him. He always recognizes those who have played a role in the success he's experienced as a coach and athletic director, and how they've helped him. This is especially true in recent years as Ahart has had Prostate Cancer since 2012.
Ahart receives chemo every three weeks, but has not missed a game or a practice because of treatments. His doctors have attributed coaching and staying active as the reason why his treatments have been as successful as they have been, and as an overall benefit to his health and continued energy. “I'm fortunate to have the best doctors I can have,” he said.
He also thanks Assistant Coach Hill, Roscoe Superintendent John Evans, and Downsville and Livingston Manor Athletic Directors Jeff Baier and Adam Larson, who he works closely with through the shared sports teams among the three schools. “They've been an important part of the support which has helped me to continue to be able to coach and perform athletic director duties. Their support has been really important to the process.”
Ahart goes back to his surgery early in the 2012 football season. He missed only two practices, and was back on the third day. Ahart credits assistant coaches Bill Hendrickson and Tom Rose for their support during that season.
Lastly he thanks his family for their support, especially Becky who gave him his philosophy as he continues this fight. During a ride home from an appointment, Ahart, like many people who are battling cancer, felt as if he had bad luck and felt the common, “Why me?”
His wife's response has stuck with him. She told him, “Being able to coach and have the professional life and friends you've had, and the wonderful family you have, you're the luckiest person I know.”
“It's true,” Ahart said. “I've had a very fortunate life. She's right. That's shaped my thoughts as I continue to go through this. Putting that into perspective shows her support.”
No matter what obstacles are faced, Ahart has no plans of slowing down anytime soon.
And we're excited to see him back on the football field in the fall and on the basketball court next winter in his 51st season.
“I love coaching and working with the teams,” he said. “It's always been a part of my life. I plan to continue to do this as long as I can. I love all the people I come in contact with and the players who work together for a common goal.”

Proud to call him a friend
Ahart praised fellow Co-Coach of the Year, Chris Russo, who he has been close friends with for years. Russo taught at the Roscoe Central School District in the late 90s/early 2000s, and was Becky's assistant coach on teams that experienced great success, including multiple Section 9 titles.
“Chris has been an important part of my life over the years. I love him,” Ahart said.
“He's my choice for Coach of the Year,” Ahart added, “not only for Monticello's successful season, but for all he does for basketball in the area. The Basketball Coaches Association of New York (BCANY) Coaches vs Cancer Classic, other fundraiser activities, running the Monticello high school summer basketball league...his work with BCANY benefits us all.
“He's an extraordinary individual who's contributed greatly to basketball in Section 9 and New York State. And of course, Christine [Russo's wife] and Chris have seven kids, and he's still able to balance family, coaching and BCANY. Becky and I are proud to call Chris and Christine our friends.”

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