As Anthony Latina enters his third season as the Sacred Heart head coach, he must fill the void left behind with the graduation of three productive seniors.
Perhaps the most daunting challenge is how Latina plans to fill the minutes vacated from the graduation of his long-time starting point guard, who impressively finished his career with 730 assists, the third most in league history. How exactly do you replace a senior captain who accounted for more than 39% of the Pioneers’ helpers last season?
The solution was to swiftly add the player to the coaching staff.
After weighing his options early this offseason, Phil Gaetano has decided to join the Sacred Heart coaching staff in some capacity for the 2015-16 season. The former Pioneer guard had briefly contemplated playing professionally in Europe – Gaetano lined up an agent and had even spoken with former LIU Brooklyn star Jason Brickman, who lasted played in Germany, on the challenges of adapting to a different culture.
In the end, however, Gaetano decided to chase a dream he’s had for many years – to coach basketball at the collegiate level.
“I always wanted to be a coach,” Gaetano, who’s also working to earn a master’s degree at Sacred Heart, said. “I always enjoyed that side of the game. Even when I was little, I’d draw up plays for my dad just for fun.”
At the ripe old age of six, Gaetano was eagerly breaking down game film of his older brother with his father, long-time Sheehan High School coach Joe Gaetano. Now, the selfless, pass-first floor general is happily following in his father’s footsteps.
“He’s going to be a tremendous resource for not only the coaches, but the players,” Latina said of Gaetano, whom he called the most cerebral player he’s ever coached. “He’s (been) great working with our young guards with Cane, Quincy, Chris Robinson and Sean Hoehn.”
As someone who only received one Division I offer approximately four years ago, Gaetano provides a strong example for how players should work and carry themselves on and off-the-floor. Latina wholeheartedly agrees: “He probably didn’t have the natural ability of (the current players), but he made himself a very relevant and good player. It was because of hard and diligent work and being a student of the game, so I think he can bring that to those guys, which I think will help their development dramatically.”
The Pioneers come into the 2015-16 season with one of the youngest and most inexperienced backcourts in the conference. After Broome, who averaged nearly 32 minutes per game as a rookie, freshmen Quincy McKnight and Sean Hoehn and sophomore Chris Robinson have played a grand total of 143 minutes at the collegiate level. It’s that youth and Gaetano’s comradery with his former teammates that served as an important factor for his return to Fairfield.
“I felt like a part of this team still,” Gaetano admitted. “I wanted to see the guys – guys that I played with and I know how hard they worked – I wanted to be there to help them accomplish what ultimately they want to accomplish.”
One teammate that should continue to reap dividends with Gaetano’s presence is Broome. The sophomore guard had one of the best rookie seasons in recent NEC memory, leading his team in points scored (463) and free throws made (88), while finishing second in assists (77) and steals (36).
According to Latina, Gaetano made life a little easier for Broome as he adjusted to the rigors of Division I. “He took a lot of pressure off Cane in terms of responsibility,” he said. “Phil allowed Cane to play very instinctively. He didn’t have to think quite as much. Now that will change this year – Cane is going to have to be more of a thinker… and he’s going to have to lead some more and set the table some more and get people in the right spots.”
With Gaetano in the fold, Broome’s transition to play as a more traditional point guard shouldn’t be as arduous. The two have already watched copious amounts of film this offseason, studying combo guards like Steph Curry and former Mount St. Mary’s star guard Julian Norfleet.
“(Cane) was a big reason that I decided to stay,” Gaetano said. “We have such a good relationship and I was excited about getting to work with him.”
It’s Latina’s hope that Gaetano’s presence on the sidelines will continue to guide his players to contender status within the NEC.
Vinny Simone also contributed to this report.