The mastermind: How one call changed Hoosac Valley girls basketball history
After three seasons away from being a head coach, Ron Wojcik received a call from then Hoosac Valley boys basketball coach Bill Robinson in 2010.
Robinson had a proposition. After Joe Racicot left the Hurricanes to take the head job at Pittsfield, Robinson was curious if Wojcik wanted a chance to coach the girls team.
Wojcik scoffed at first.
"He said, 'you have to see the girls play,'" Wojcik remembers from the chat. So Wojcik did. A Sunday session that Robinson was running.
"I go down and I watch these girls, and they are hustling and diving for loose balls and doing all these things and I was like 'wow.'" said Wojcik. "I had this vision of girls basketball that wasn't like this, I guess. I put in for the job, and I was fortunate, and I've been fortunate since."
Wojcik hasn't been the only fortunate one. Seven seasons later, and the Hurricanes have become one of the premier teams in all of Western Massachusetts. Five consecutive Western Mass. titles and four consecutive state championship game appearances later, Wojcik can still barely believe what he and his players have accomplished as the Hurricanes gear up for the MIAA Division III state championship game against Archbishop Williams.
"We did not envision anything like what we have right now," Wojcik said in a phone interview with The Eagle on Wednesday night. "I don't think anybody possibly could."
Wojcik is a son of the Berkshires. A 1980 graduate of Pittsfield High, Wojcik was a varsity letterman in basketball for the Generals before going on to Worcester Polytechnic Institute to play basketball. When he graduated from WPI, Wojcik came back home.
That's when he was approached by the Taconic coach at the time, Chris Jacoby, to be an assistant on his staff.
Wojcik spent one year there, then spent two seasons at Lenox coaching the JV team under Fred Lafave. From there, he went back to his alma mater to coach, where Wojcik spent 14 seasons as the head man for the Generals. In that time, he went 191-109, and led the Generals to the Western Mass. Division I championship games in 2000 and 2005.
His timeline as a player and coach meant he got to play against, then work against, some of the greatest coaches in the county: Ed Ladley at Wahconah and Lafave at Lenox were two he played and coached against, along with names like Paul Procopio at St. Joseph, and Robinson and his Hoosac Valley teams.
But, as time wore on, Wojcik had an itch to scratch. His stepson, Matt Graham, was a standout basketball player for Agawam. After seeing only a handful of games in his sophomore season, Wojcik decided he wanted to see more of Matt's games.
So he left Pittsfield. Wojcik spent the next couple of years watching Matt's games at Agawam. But once Matt graduated, there was a basketball void again in Wojcik's life. That's when Robinson stepped in.
Wojcik was very hesitant at first about coaching girls.
"For me it was a big adjustment, like anything, trying to understand where I was in the boys game and the girls game," Wojcik said.
His players note that Wojcik can be both a "teddy bear," as Fallon Field described him, and a tough-love educator.
"You know there's never going to be a day where you don't have to work hard," Field said of her coach. "No matter what day it is. If we have a game tomorrow or a game in a week, he always pushes us to be our best and work our hardest. He doesn't let us be anything other than our best."
That push Wojcik puts on his players comes from the pressure he puts on himself. To Wojcik, who also teaches at Taconic, coaching and educating aren't simply about showing up and shouting directions.
"If you are going to be in these types of roles someday, you owe it to your students, to your players, to do those types of things for them," he said. "Give it your best. Regardless if you are a teacher, coach or player, give it your best. And to me, giving your best is doing your homework, working hard at it and trying to be the best you can be for your kids."
Wojcik is, first and foremost, a teacher.
Whether that is on the court, or in the classroom.
Wojcik leads the Academy of Information Technology at Taconic High School. He arrived at Taconic after working in information technology in the private sector, and has been at the school for 15 years now.
Wojcik said that the transition from the private sector to teaching was intimidating at first. He found himself thinking "'What are we going to do? Can I manage this, can I handle these kids?'"
He gained confidence from his ability to coach kids at PHS.
"I think that helped a lot," Wojcik said of trying to relate teaching to coaching, "and then from the standpoint of teaching and coaching are similar."
His impact in the classroom is just as profound as his impact on the court. During practice for the state championship game this week, Wojcik approached several of his Taconic kids, who were varsity players for the Braves, about coming up to the Hoosac practice to act as a scout team for Archbishop Williams.
The quintet of Izaiya Mestre, Deonte Sandifer, Jack Cooney, Matt Stracuzzi and Jake McNeice agreed without question.
"He's a pretty cool dude," Cooney said. "When he asked us to do this, it was a no-brainer to help him out, because we want to see him with a state championship."
Wojcik said he owes a lot of his success at Hoosac to the coaches he draws inspiration from.
Lafave has been a constant source of information for Wojcik, and his lessons from Wojcik's time as the JV coach at Lenox still show up in his approach today. Robinson, meanwhile, was a source of some classic PHS-Hoosac tilts back in the day, but was always available to talk to once the postseason rolled around and the two teams split into their respective divisions. Once Wojcik arrived at Hoosac, it would be commonplace to catch him on a Saturday either just getting off the phone with Robinson, or about to call the Hoosac legend to talk basketball.
His two assistants over his seven years at Hoosac have been Stef Curry and Bob LeClair. Both have been instrumental in helping Wojcik get acclimated to coaching girls teams.
"Coming in with their knowledge of girls basketball, Stef has been doing it for some many years, that was huge for me," Wojcik said, "because [Curry] could constantly point things out to me that I might not realize or see.
"We've all grown really close, and it's just been a — I certainly don't feel I'd be as successful without these guys, for sure. They've been great."
Wojcik is an innovator in these parts.
One trip to a Hoosac game will show anyone that. The way the Hurricanes swarm and press teams is something that Wojcik has continued to build and build with his teams.
Wojcik has always liked pressing. His PHS boys did it, but not as much as his Hoosac girls do it now.
To Wojcik, the pressing and pressure defenses are a coming full circle in his coaching history.
"I always liked pressing, but what I found was, just like with us playing Boston [teams] now, my Pittsfield High boys teams would even just go to Springfield ... to the stronger Division I's, [and] we weren't able to [press] on a consistent basis with them. I kind of got away from it with them.
"And then, when I came with the girls, I think that's one of the things we recognized, too. You don't always have a lot strong ballhandlers as you go from girls team to girls team."
But it's not just normal pressing that Wojcik instills in his team. Rather, he's pushed the envelope about as far as it goes as to when a team can press.
"I've kind of taken the approach where, okay, we are going to run a press, and kind of dictate what we want to happen throughout the game," Wojcik said, "and it kind of ballooned out from there."
Pressing off of missed baskets, and not just makes, was the first step. Then came pressing in situations that most teams wouldn't even bother trying, including one-man traps in the halfcourt.
"People are like 'what do you mean one-man traps? There are no one-man traps.' Well, we have one-man traps. We try to get a person to kill the dribble, and everyone else is covering somebody."
The defenses also force his players into becoming better ballers.
When Field and Kailynne Frederick were asked about the defenses, the two started rattling off sets. Six or seven defenses later, the two stopped.
"His defenses are very intense," Field said. "I like it, because Hoosac Valley girls basketball has that reputation of the team that brings the intensity and the passion, and I think that comes from our defenses."
"He keeps us on our toes a lot," Frederick added, "because he'll throw in a random defense. You kind of throw them all together, and it's like 'okay, how does he come up with it?' He watches so many games."
Wojcik does watch a lot of games. And the coach acknowledges that the grind of coaching is only possible through his family, both immediate and basketball.
A man with an intense belief in his faith, Wojcik tries to model his teams around the "family" atmosphere that he thinks works best.
"I think it's awesome, because no matter what kind of day we have at school, whether something is happening in our personal lives, or if we had a bad day at school, a bad test, we can come to practice, and automatically it's gone," Field said. "He's always said 'this is where you can forget about everything, and play for yourself, and be with your teammates and be with your family.'"
Wojcik also noted the need for a supportive nuclear family. His wife, Diane, has had to deal with years of long nights of watching film and scouting teams, and countless trips across the state as the Hurricanes try to play the toughest schedule possible.
The woman known as "Titi" to the team, the Portuguese word for aunt, has had to deal with everything.
"It helps to have an understanding wife," Wojcik said. "My wife Diane has been awesome through all of this.
"You need an understanding family and support around you, whether it is family or coaches. My father and brothers have been supportive, my mom was when she was alive. Three-and-a-half months really consumes you and becomes your life."
Wojcik's focus has also meant that, as Hoosac players grow through the program and eventually graduate, they're still plugged in with what is going on. In the same practice that the Taconic boys came, former Hurricane Mckenzie Robinson also showed up, along with current MCLA teammate Kayla Hotaling.
Robinson said that without Wojcik, she wouldn't be half the player she is currently.
"One of the best coaches I've had," Mckenzie said. "It also comes to mind, the coach who made me who I am. The confidence I have in my shot, he's huge in hitting threes. I didn't shoot when I came in as a freshman, I was scared.
"But he was on top of it and said 'Kenz, you're a good shooter,' and I think that was important. Whenever I shoot, I know someone believes in me."
As Wojcik prepared to lead his Hurricanes into another state championship game, the coach continued obsessing over details. It's what he does.
"It's the type of thing where, you try to tell the kids on the court, 'I want you guys to give it your all.' ... So if I'm going to preach that, I think I have to do the same. So I try to cover every detail, and we go into these games and try to get to the point that I'm doing everything I can to give these kids a chance to win this game and be the best they can be."
His players see Wojcik's work, and feel compelled to reciprocate.
"He's an amazing coach. I've learned so much from him," sophomore guard Alie Mendel said. "How he runs our practices, it shows in the game. He definitely has a basketball mind."
The commitment from coach and players has the Hurricanes back playing for a state championship. Wojcik, though, deflects the credit for it. To him, everything comes back to the players — past and present.
"I would be happy for not only the kids we have now [if we won], but for all those kids that have had state title chances that didn't get it. I'd call this all of their trophy," Wojcik said. "I would call it a state title for all those teams, because they are all a part of making us who we are. I would be happy for the community, my assistants, who put as much effort as I do into it, yeah it would be really exciting."
The players, though, want to win this game as much for "Coach Ron" as they do themselves.
"I think it would end our journey with Ron on an extremely good note," Field said. "We've been through it all together, and to leave Hoosac with a state title trophy in the case for Ron to look back on and always remember us, and to be proud of, I think it would be nice to go and get it together."
Win or lose, together they will go. Wojcik and his family. Just how the coach likes it.
Contact Geoff Smith at 413-496-6254 or @GSmith_Eagle.
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