Published November 24. 2012 4:00AM
It was during vacation last July that the phone rang. A little birdie. A little birdie who said Jeff Larson's time at New London High School was over. Sigh. Good guy, that Larson. Sad to see him go. Plus, it meant a day of work on vacation. Wife was thrilled.
But it's New London football. The high school program that generates the most eyes and attention from the masses in our corner of the world. Whatever, she said.
The Larson story wasn't complete for 25 seconds when the phone rang again. Had to duck out to take this call, or risk projectiles thrown in my general direction. It was Chuck Banning, Czar of the Day sports department.
"They're hiring Duane Maranda," he said.
"Come on," I said.
I didn't think it was a very good choice. Nice guy, sure. But I thought his teams at Bacon Academy were underwhelming. Not a teacher, hence not in the building. Would he have rapport with the kids? Coaches?
And now I am happy to report, four months later, that I was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Happily so. Duane Maranda earned a straight 'A' this season.
Think about what he accomplished: He was a stranger, the greatest sin of all in the world's most insular city. He had to win over his coaches. He had to win over his players. Implement a new system. Withstand all the coaches in the stands, who relate everything back to their own playing days, refusing to accept changing circumstances.
Turns out the coaches like him and respect him. So do the players. It showed through interactions during games and practices the public doesn't necessarily catch. It showed on the field. I know a 7-3 record here might as well be 0-10. But this was the most disciplined team at New London I've seen in 20 years. Virtually no penalties the entire season. That's coaching, people.
Do you know how hard that is, especially for a new guy with a new system?
Do you know how hard that is, especially for a new guy with a job and a family, not to mention a wife who was about to deliver a baby and make the family bigger during the season?
Maranda was disappointed Thursday after the loss to NFA snapped the program's four-year run of playoff berths. The three losses - to North Haven, Fitch and NFA - came to better teams. Stronger up front. It just means a bigger commitment to the weight room in the offseason.
Everyone around the program is excited about its future. Many quality freshmen. Promising youth program. Which would suggest Maranda might have the best job in the ECC moving forward.
And yet his biggest challenge is to manage an issue out of his control.
Are all the kids going to stay?
That means: the kids already in the program and the kids from the youth teams who have yet to join.
Let's leave it here: They'll have options, well beyond whether to attend New London High or the Magnet School.
And for all the accusations aimed at Whalerville for allegedly enticing kids to come here, just as many poachers try to lure New London kids elsewhere.
And the people who scream the loudest about it are often the most guilty.
Recruiting is all but impossible to prove in high school sports. Mostly because people are afraid to put their names to their accusations, thus making it impossible to report. My memoirs from here one day will offer the hundreds - and I mean hundreds - of recruiting stories that have come within an eyelash of making the paper, only to get flushed because the dramatis personae copped out.
And that's what Maranda will face.
If the kids in question stay here, the Whalers will be a contender until further notice. But as one coach said Thursday, there are foxes in the henhouse.
Not sure what happens. What I can say is this: The city came together quite wonderfully this season for the game at Ledyard and again Thursday. You should be proud of the Whalers in 2012.
Maranda deserves much of the credit.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.