What impression, Sonny Spera was asked, should a first-time observer be left with upon exiting the gymnasium following a Maine-Endwell girls basketball game?
“What you should see from our team is dedication to one another, utmost respect for the opponent and the game itself, and just unselfish play,” he said. “On any given night a different person could be the star, but every single night every single teammate should support each other.
“I would hope you would come into our gym and not really know who the key player is.
“Those are things I hope we stand for, that we play together, we are unselfish to a fault almost, and it’s a ‘we’ mentality not a ‘me’ mentality.”
Those staples have been in place for nine seasons in which Spera has served as head coach of one of Section 4’s most consistently successful girls programs.
Spera, who vacates the post after guiding M-E to a second consecutive berth in the final four of Class A state playoffs, has been chosen Elite 10 Girls Coach of the Year by the sports staffs of the Press & Sun-Bulletin, Elmira Star-Gazette and The Ithaca Journal.
Maine-Endwell’s approach under his leadership has been a no-frills mix of cohesiveness, selflessness, structure and a team defensive concept known to smother and overwhelm opponents into frustration. Fundamentally sound, dutifully instructed individuals were molded into a unit, season after season.
The winter of 2013-14 brought 18 wins in 21 games, a sixth sectional championship in eight years, and a four-point loss to Pittsford Sutherland that denied the Spartans repeat passage into the state title game.
Following a loss to Owego in the STAC semifinals, which halted an 11-game win streak, M-E’s girls strung three playoff victories by an average 19-point margin preceding the season finale. One of those was a 47-26 dispatch of Section 9 champion Wallkill in which an unbeaten, top-ranked opponent mustered an unfathomable seven second-half points.
That contest perhaps above all was evidence of the Spartans’ devotion to defensive superiority. That 26-point total was turned in by a bigger, faster Wallkill squad that, on paper, figured to have an upper hand.
“I really think it all boils down to those basic principles that I learned in high school,” Spera said of the defense he teaches. A 1981 graduate of Union-Endicott High who went on to play at Syracuse University, he learned defense from one of the best: the late Charlie Tarricone.
“You go to clinics, things change a little bit, but the same core philosophies, I don’t think they do change. Defense is all about heart and effort. You should really never have an off night defensively regardless of how you’re playing on the offensive end.
” … If my man scores 15 points, it may not have been my responsibility for those 15. It might have been that I was involved in a switch or I was rotating over to give help — it’s a team concept, it’s team defense.”
And it does not simply fall into place.
A combination of the coach’s deep understanding of the game coupled with Grade-A rapport with his players — and their willingness to compete without fail on both ends of the floor — has been the root of success.
As for what gets the coach’s dander up on the practice floor?
“If we talk when he’s talking, he’ll make sure that we’re paying attention. He doesn’t want us talking when he’s talking,” said senior Julie Yacovoni.
“I’d say when after we make a mistake, we hang our head and not get back, that’s one thing that really gets him. Just move on and get to the next play,” said Victoria Dean, another senior.
After all, the past is just that, the past. Each player is a trip up the floor from making a productive play, with or without the basketball.
Atop Spera’s list of no-no’s: “Disrespect. Disrespect for their teammates, disrespect for the game. The attitude, the drama, the me-me-me thing. You’re all going to have good days and bad days. But team concept, once you’ve lost that? And you’re strictly focusing on me-me-me? Then we’re going to have some conversations about that.”
He added, “If it’s not my night, it was your night? I’m not walking out of there with my head down I’m happy because our team won, our team played well.”
Spera, 50, clearly states that while he will no longer be M-E’s head varsity coach, he will keep his hand in the game. If his input is wanted to the varsity level, he’ll willingly pitch in. Perhaps he’ll oversee development of a youth team. One way or another, he’ll remain involved in the game.
As for free time that’ll be afforded in the winter months, there’ll be some travel with wife Angela, and additional office hours spent in the role of Dr. Herman “Sonny” Spera, DDS. But nine seasons of memories will not soon fade.
“The kids. They give 100 percent of themselves to the team, they completely buy in,” he said. And after they leave his program, “They’re on great paths in their lives and they look back and something about the season, something about the team affected them in a positive way. To have that little part in their lives, that’s priceless.
“To know that you were in there somewhere and you had a positive effect, that’s what it’s all about.”