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    Tuesday, March 05, 2024

    Bernardi wins St. Joseph debut with the legend himself, Vito Montelli, seated in front row

    Jeff Bernardi gets down in a defensive position while shouting instructions to his team during East Lyme’s game against New London in the 2022 ECC Division I boys’ basketball tournament semifinals on Feb. 26 at Waterford. Bernardi, now the head coach at St. Joseph in Trumbull, won his debut with the legendary program on Saturday with a 69-65 win over NFA. (Day file photo)

    Trumbull — At first glance, nothing has changed for Jeff Bernardi. Same snazzy suit, same maroon-colored matching tie and socks, at a school where maroon is the primary hue. Same coaching demeanor, all the spasms up and down the sideline, including the defensive stance he prefers for his players: arms out, legs in a squat, as if he’s about to throw down with a forest animal.

    But then, everything has changed for this bright basketball mind East Lyme lost to St. Joseph in the offseason. Jeff Bernardi went from a 13-year Advanced Placement History teacher at Valley Regional to a sixth-grade social studies teacher in Easton. He has moved to Shelton. And his first home game at his new digs Saturday landed him in the shadows of 11 state championship banners and the interested eye of Vito Montelli, author of all 11 banners and the man for whom the court is named.

    The Cadets found a way to make their new coach victorious, a 69-65 win over Norwich Free Academy, after which Bernardi cracked that he’s now only 877 wins behind Montelli. The legend, 90 years young, was full of compliments Saturday for the new sheriff at St. Joe’s.

    “It’s been great. There's so much talent here,” Bernardi said. “They're all like basketball kids. And it's a special place. Lot of history here. And to have coach Montelli here in the front row meant a lot to me. I invited him to come and I'm glad he was able to make it.”

    Aside from guard Brandon Hutchinson and forward Dashawn Hall-Johnson, this was the first varsity game for the entire team. St. Joe’s fell behind early and then by nine in the third quarter. But if we know anything else about the boys of Bernardi, they grind and grind and grind. Their coach knows no other way.

    “Even from the day he was introducing himself to us, he knew right away and understood the tradition of St. Joe's basketball,” Hutchinson said. “My first time talking to him, he had already watched all of our games from last year and knew everything about us. I was like, ‘This guy's crazy.’ But he puts so much time into this and into us. All the kids researched him on our own. We knew we got a guy that dedicates all of his time to us, so we were feeling great about it.”

    Bernardi resuscitated the East Lyme program, bringing it to its crescendo last March, winning the ECC Division I tournament with something other than the most talented team. But the buy-in of the Vikings, particularly the seniors, was like no other. Yet just when he could have run for czar of the town, well, the Yankees called.

    “Look at the wall,” Bernardi said. “You’ve got 11 state championship banners here. You can really accomplish some special things. I was extremely fortunate to have Dev (Ostrowski) at East Lyme. But that’s once in a lifetime there. I was very fortunate to have my opportunities in East Lyme. I think I grew up as a person and as a coach. I'll always have a special place in my heart for East Lyme. It’s very much responsible for giving me this opportunity.”

    Bernardi has discovered that it’s not so bad to coach kids from several surrounding towns, provided you understand that chemistry is a slow drip.

    “There's more structure here. The kids are talented and come from all over. In East Lyme, those kids are playing together since they're five or six,” Bernardi said. “These guys are playing together for the first time in their lives when they enter high school. So I have to worry about them gelling and building the trust and teamwork aspect, which was already established at East Lyme.”

    Bernardi had family and friends watching Saturday. This is a new life and a new thing. He goes from road games in the woods of Woodstock to the gold coast. And he gets to build a program whose history still dictates its present.

    “The way he puts his mentality into the kids and into the whole team, that’s big,” Hutchinson said. “That’s something we needed.”

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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