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    Monday, March 04, 2024

    Waterford High math dept. awash in sports, too

    Groton - In the pantheon of local sports entertainment, it gets no better than Mike Ellis, who takes his sons of Fitch to the state football playoffs again next week. The man is a terrific coach, while somehow managing to navigate the chaos of a football sideline - part fire drill, part revival meeting - forsaking any use of profanity.

    (Other football sidelines would expand George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television” into an anthology.)

    Ellis says things like "heck," "darnit" and "son of a gun" under the worst of circumstances. Some of us media types even try to sneak up behind him during times of peril just to see if he’ll ever mix in “golly gee whiz.”

    If nearly 30 years around a person is enough to form an educated opinion, here’s one: If you ever need to know how a coach should act, just look at whatever Mike Ellis happens to be doing at the time.

    But it turns out there is another layer here, one that marries the often contradicting concepts of academics and athletics. Ellis is the head of the math department at Waterford High, a band of nine educators who are deeply involved in sports as well.

    After Ellis, there is Bill Bassett, who led the Lancers to the 2018 and 2019 state basketball championships; Liz Force, who coaches field hockey and indoor track; Tommy Ryan, assistant basketball and baseball; Kyle Florio, assistant basketball and baseball; Kevin Dobo, umpire and football official; and Joe Steady, assistant tennis.

    “Then you have Suzanne Sturm, who is our math cheerleader and Dan Seltzer, who loves all teams Philadelphia,” Ellis said.

    A more cynical fellow might smirk at potential lunch conversation amid the math crowd. Do they place their sandwiches and chips at opposite ends of the lunch box and try to calculate Distance Formula? If someone says “why,” do they answer, “y=mx+b?” Or do they sing “sine, sine, everywhere a sine?”

    Turns out these cats in Waterford talk sports.

    “Liz used to show me film on field hockey,” Ellis said Thursday, after his football Falcons retained the Colonel Ledyard Sword. “I had no idea what's going on. But she showed me some film on it, talking about this and that and the details of the game. Kevin always presents us with scenarios from officiating that we have to try to answer correctly. Bill and I have a lot of conversations, because we deal with a lot of the same type of things. It's nice to have each other to bounce off different scenarios.”

    Now for the educational part: Is there a relationship between mathematical concepts and coaching theory?

    “It's the logical sequence of thinking,” Ellis said. “In math, you’ve got to solve equations and write proofs. You do things in a certain way. That's kind of what I take here in terms of organization. Things have to be done a certain way and in a certain order, and if it's done that way, it all fits together. The chaos works. And we’ve got chaos here at Fitch.”

    It’s not easy for Ellis, who teaches at one school and coaches in another. Many athletic directors prefer their head coaches to be “in the building,” to fortify relationships with their players, see them in the daily school setting and to perhaps put out fires when necessary.

    And yet here’s Ellis, able to commute from 20 Rope Ferry Road to 101 Groton Long Point Rd. every day and use his mathematical mind to maintain order.

    “The key is to have it organized and to make sure we’re doing things in a teaching progression,” Ellis said. “We are going to teach them individually. Then we're going to the group. Then we're going to the team. If you watched us at the beginning of the year, there wasn’t a lot of team going on. It was a lot of individual and group stuff building up to that. Just like a math problem. So a lot of the same thought process goes on.”

    There are many places where it feels as though souvenir chunks of the Berlin Wall separate academics from athletics as an “either/or” but not an “and.” Ah, but there is a relationship, best evidenced by Ellis and his very successful teams at Waterford and Fitch.

    It’s a darn good story, by golly.

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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