Eight or so years ago, back before he and his program became such familiar faces in February and March, George Gaine had $300 and an idea. The Tappan Zee basketball coach had invested his own money in a box of red T-shirts that bore a nickname of his creation. He liked the idea of mobilizing students to cheer on his team as “the Crazees.” He now had to hope they agreed.
Telling the story now, Gaine remembers parking at the front of the cafeteria with his shirts and making his case to the student body.
“I had a big speaker and a microphone,” Gaine said. “I was waiting for someone to hit me with a tomato.”
All these years and wins later, Gaine is about the only person at his games not covered in red. As Sunday’s Class A championship draws closer, the transformation of the two finalists could not be more stark. No. 1 Tappan Zee and No. 2 Byram Hills have evolved from also-rans into perennial contenders and the envy of just about every program this side of Mount Vernon.
“George and I started to know each other when we were first getting started and I remember having these conversations with him,” said Byram Hills coach Ted Repa, who is now in his 14th season. “There was this yearning that we just wanted to get to the County Center. Nothing lasts forever, but we’re now both at a place where we’re at the higher end of Class A every year.”
Often, the highest. Tappan Zee has reached the County Center six of the last seven years and will play for its third championship after winning in 2010 and 2012. Byram Hills has been to the semifinals — and usually beyond — in five of the last six years, winning in 2011 and finishing as the runner-up in 2013 and 2015.
Tappan Zee’s transformation was rooted in Gaine’s family-first philosophy. When he started 13 seasons ago, Gaine established a culture that placed building relationships and caring for teammates above X’s and O’s.
He started a summer basketball camp nine years ago and began forming those bonds with players before they had even sniffed high school.
“At first, it was me, 30 kids and a folding table,” he said. “Now it’s easily over 100 kids every summer from our community. The first year I remember handing out pamphlets in front of an ice cream shop in town.”
The deep roots between Gaine, his staff and the players have fostered a loyalty almost unmatched in Section 1 basketball. Several former players — including recent stars Pat Peterson, Eric Casey and Ryan O’Rourke — coach in the program. Dozens or more can be seen at most Tappan Zee games behind the home bench or the scorer’s table high-fiving Gaine or giving his players tips or encouragement on their way to or from the locker room.
Gaine will acknowledge that his words or actions may seem — his word — “corny” to some, but the players swear by the Tappan Zee culture.
“I was teammates with some of those guys and they are my brothers,” said Luke McLaughlin, a 2015 graduate who is now a freshman at Pace. “Everybody always comes back to practices and workouts. Sometimes, you get players from the older teams who have graduated and they don’t want to see the other teams be successful. That’s the complete opposite with us. I want to see this team win the section and go to states. And I’m sure Pat (Peterson) wants them to win it all.”
When Tappan Zee upset Peekskill and Spring Valley to win its first Section 1 title in 2010, Gaine and his program received an unmistakable boost. Winning the next year had the same impact at Byram Hills, which had gone 33 years without winning a gold ball.
“Once we broke through, it was amazing,” Repa said. “The way our community came out, it was like everybody was a rock star. We have so many more kids playing basketball at a younger age now than we ever did.”
That 2011 team succeeded with a mixture of underclassmen and seniors and Repa has taken a similar approach to program building since. This year’s team starts a sophomore and two juniors and even has two freshmen who earn time off the bench.
During Repa’s tenure, youth, injuries and other frailties have never been an excuse. Players have grown accustomed to winning no matter the circumstances.
“I feel like the kids know there’s a higher standard now and they’re used to that,” said Jeff Lynch, a 2013 graduate who led three straight teams to the County Center. “I’ve seen them play and they play fearless. That’s the Byram way. That’s what they do.”
For four years, Lynch’s foot has been quite the footnote in the programs’ shared history. They have played only once at the County Center and Lynch missed that 2012 semifinal with a stress fracture in his foot.
The injury had been misdiagnosed as a bone spur all season and it severely hobbled him during a quarterfinal upset of Kennedy that year. He was unable to play the next week, but unbeaten Tappan Zee won narrowly, 48-46, before it eventually reached the Class A state championship game.
“We think about that a lot,” Repa said. “We lost by two without our leading scorer and they went to the state final. The kids that are on our team now, either they had older brothers or they were watching us and they feel that. They want this one bad. They want it for our alumni. They want it for the Jeff Lynches, the Ryan Goldens, the Andrew Grolls.”
Since their unlikely emergence as Section 1 powers, Byram Hills is winless against Tappan Zee. The Dutchmen won twice in 2012 (once with Lynch on the floor) and then won Byram’s Winter Classic 63-55 last Dec. 5.
They once met regularly with much smaller stakes. When their coaches were 20-somethings starting out, the teams used to compete — sometimes poorly — in the same league alongside contenders Port Chester, Fox Lane and Horace Greeley.
Those years of battling in the middle of the pack have long been forgotten.
“He’s done a tremendous job and we have nothing but respect,” Gaine said. “It’s just amazing how much 10 years have changed things.”