MIDDLEBURY — Longtime Middlebury Union High School boys’ lacrosse coach Jono Chapin’s teams have compiled a 231-100 record during his 20-year tenure.
Since 1992, his Tiger teams have won seven Division I state championships, and the boys’ lacrosse team plays on a facility, Fucile Field, built largely because of tireless fund-raising by Chapin and a handful of other local citizens.
Chapin, a Middlebury resident recently named the Vermont Lacrosse Coaches Association’s Man of the Year for his diligent statewide efforts on behalf of the sport, is now in the process of re-applying for the job, with no guarantees.
MUHS activities director Sean Farrell said athlete and parent feedback was not completely favorable after this past season, the second straight in which an inexperienced Tiger boys’ lacrosse team won just one game.
Those two seasons are easily Chapin’s worst, but it’s been since 2003 that the Tigers have won a D-I title. And since 2004, when the Tigers went 7-11 to dip below .500 for the first time in Chapin’s tenure, the program has compiled an overall mark of just 42-62.
But Farrell, who said he has to comment carefully about this or any other personnel issue, insisted the record isn’t the issue.
“This has for me been a difficult process, because he has committed so much of his own personal time and resources to help the school within lacrosse and with the field and all the things he does,” Farrell said. “But this process doesn’t happen because we’ve had two losing seasons. It’s not based on win-loss. I don’t think I would ever deal with a coach purely on those issues. That’s not what it’s about.”
Farrell said what he sees makes up the single most important part of the evaluation process for any MUHS coach.
“I have my own observations when I’m at games and practices,” Farrell said. “I take mental notes of how things went and any issues. I don’t wait until the end of the year to have conversations with coaches.”
But he does take into account what he is told, especially in this case by lacrosse athletes who filled out a confidential online survey about their feelings from this past spring — all MUHS athletes, starting in the fall of 2010, are asked to do so when their seasons end.
“It’s certainly about kids having a positive experience, and that’s why a lot of this (decision to open the position) is on student evaluations and what they feel they’re getting out of the program,” Farrell said. “And if we don’t have kids who ... look at the whole program feeling happy about the direction, that drives me a lot more than parents or won-loss records.”
And some parents have lobbied Farrell for a different coach.
“I use the analogy sometimes the pasture is greener on the other side. And the feeling is there’s got to be somebody else out there,” he said. “The parents (felt) there was somebody else out there ... that maybe after 20 years maybe we need a new perspective.”
Issues include, Farrell said, complaints about the relentless fund-raising needed to support the program, Chapin’s alleged failure to update his practice regimen and tactics, and — Chapin raised this in an interview with the Independent more than Farrell — a sense that the team’s overall discipline has not been strong enough in recent years.
Some complaints matter more than others, Farrell said.
Farrell said fund-raising is a fact of life for families of public school athletes, and that he is not concerned about the specifics of what drills Chapin is using in his practices, but possibly about a related question.
“The perspective of the student-athlete is ... they’re feeling kind of stagnant in day-to-day activities, drills and things of that nature,” Farrell said. “Jono is very knowledgeable in the sport and does attend clinics and attempt to improve his knowledge of the game. I don’t think anyone can argue Jono’s knowledge of lacrosse ... But it’s that interaction and the kids feeling there’s no progression.”
Both Chapin and Farrell said their dialogue had been open and candid. Chapin said he feels comfortable enough to submit an application for the coaching job.
“I’m planning on re-applying,” he said.
Chapin said he will work on those issues to which Farrell refers, and one he knows he must focus on is team discipline.
“That’s not a strong area of mine, but that’s an aspect of something that I’ve got to look deeply at and ask how other coaches are dealing with,” Chapin said. “You’ve got to toe that line and hold that standard out there.”
Chapin said while that issue may go back further, he believes the tough 2010 and 2011 seasons are sparking athletes’ and parents’ discontent. And he noted that his 2008 and 2009 teams each won 12 games and reached the D-I semifinals.
“I think there’s a lot of frustration that is naturally going to build with two one-win seasons,” he said.
Chapin said those results were understandable, at least in part, because MUHS relied on a roster that was heavy on underclassmen in each of the past two springs. In 2011 the Tigers had only three seniors playing regular roles against teams that he said all featured between nine and 18 seniors.
“It feels like we might be ready to turn the corner now that they are seniors, and we were in the semis three years ago,” Chapin said. “Everybody’s frustrated ... but I don’t think it should be fully on my shoulders.”
And he said with a couple of exceptions, the Tigers showed better in each of their rematches with teams this past spring.
“I think we were (improving) in a lot of ways,” Chapin said. “By the time we were playing teams the second time, we improved in every game, with the exception of CVU (Champlain Valley) and Essex.”
Another larger fact of life looms. The other former Vermont boys’ lacrosse power of the 1990s, Woodstock, has also failed to win a state title in the past decade; Woodstock is also the only D-I boys’ lacrosse school smaller than MUHS.
Larger schools have developed effective feeder programs and have taken over. CVU, Essex, Mount Mansfield and South Burlington — with student counts roughly between 40 and 120 percent larger than MUHS — have divvied up all the D-II titles since 2003.
“The landscape has changed,” Chapin said.
Chapin said parents and athletes see the relative success of the Tiger hockey and football programs in the past two years, but don’t fully take into account those teams have been playing in Division II.
“I’m not taking anything away from the great seasons they had,” he said. “But we’re in D-I, and I don’t think people see that it’s not apples to apples.”
Farrell agreed things look rosier when teams have winning records, but he was not basing the decision to advertise the position on recent seasons alone.
“Jono has been here for 20 years, and I’ve been here for eight. And over that time period there have been things we’ve worked on,” Farrell said.
Regardless, Chapin does expect better things from next year’s team, when many juniors with two years’ experience will be seniors.
“Whoever is coaching this team next year is going to have more success,” he said. “I’m going to put myself in the best position to have it be me.”
Chapin said coaching under those circumstances might be difficult — he said he would not be getting a vote of confidence, but he wants to work to improve, not walk away.
“If I’m going forward, that’s a heavy strain to be under,” he said. “But I’ve put a lot into this program over the years.”
Farrell said Chapin could be back — coaches are hard to find.
“When I post most of my vacancies, I’ll be lucky if I get one or two applicants,” Farrell said. “The issue will be who applies. If Jono is the best candidate, even with all the issues that people have brought forward (he will be hired). That’s the best way to look at it.”
As to what an ideal coach looks like, Farrell said the school’s philosophy is that athletics are an extension of the academics, and a good coach shares the same qualities as a good teacher.
“Coaches that are strong are coaches who have good strong connections with kids, understand kids, can communicate in a way they understand,” Farrell said. “When I hire coaches, I spend more time getting a feel of who they are as a person more than what they know about the sport ... Someone with infinite knowledge may not be the best coach. But someone who I know can connect and can motivate certainly is the coach I am looking for.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.