First-time head football coach Adam Gagne would not describe the man he succeeds at Division I Salem High as a Granite State grid legend.
“In my mind, and many other minds, he's not just a New Hampshire coaching legend,” Gagne said of Jack Gati, who retired Dec. 5 after lengthy stints at Manchester's Trinity High (1978-85), Concord High (1986-93) and Salem (1994-2011). “I put him in the New England coaching legends. The states are tied together. They're so close.”
Great answer from the former offensive coordinator for Westford (Mass.) Academy. The 31-year-old takes over for a coach with the third-best win total in state history.
Gati's 37 years calling the shots led to a 221-138 career record, eight championship appearances and four state titles. He won 121 games in his 18 years guiding Salem. Two of those wins, in 1995 and 2009, clinched crowns for the Blue Devils.
Expectations, thanks largely to Gati, are high at 44 Geremonty Drive.
“I put pressure on myself to succeed,” said Gagne, who will continue teaching in Westford Academy's business department. “I wasn't going after any old coaching job. I did my research. It was absolutely the type of program I was seeking for my first job as a head coach.”
Now, the task is to make his mark on the program. Salem's offensive system seems like the logical place to start.
Gagne, a former three-sport athlete at Haverhill (Mass.) High, spent the past three seasons as an assistant head coach and offensive coordinator for the Dual County League's Grey Ghosts.
Prior to joining Rich McKenna's coaching staff at Westford Academy, Gagne spent six seasons as an assistant at Merrimack College. The resident of Haverhill, a neighboring town of Salem, was a three-year starting wide receiver at Bentley University.
Gagne's arrival means this much: fans longing for Salem to attack through the air with greater frequency should get their wish.
“'Spread offense' is such a generic term. It's a form of the spread,” Gagne said of his system. “I don't know if I have a specific name for it. It's probably going to be called the 'Blue Devil system.'”
Whatever its name, Gagne's system is far different from the one Gati preferred.
Almost exclusively relying on the ground game was always a staple of Gati-led teams.
“He's the godfather of the off-tackle. Jack hangs his hat on the running game,” former Concord head coach Bob Camirand, Gati's successor with the Crimson Tide, said when his friend of 40 years retired.
Increased focus on the the passing game certainly separates Gagne from Gati. But, the new coach insists his predecessor, who still teaches at the high school, has a place with the team.
“I see him as a big stakeholder in the program,” Gagne said. “In no way do I want to completely separate myself from that dynamic.”
Retaining two of Gati's former assistants, Dan Kelleher and Robert Pike, proves Gagne's point.
“All of us,” Gagne said, “are going to have our hands dirty in the program.”
COACHING CAROUSEL – CONTINUED
Gati's decision to retire left a lasting impression on Trinity's Gary Leonard, another Granite State grid coach, who Feb. 9 called it quits after 30-plus years.
“He said you can't coach forever. It's such a true statement,” Leonard told the New Hampshire Union Leader. “I've coached for 32 years. It was time to step down.”
Leonard, who will remain the school's athletics director, spent the last three seasons leading the Pioneers. He guided them to state titles in 2009 (Division V) and 2011 (Division IV), with a finals berth sandwiched between those championship campaigns.
The 54-year-old spent time mentoring in Maine, and as a coach with all four Manchester programs.
His New Hampshire coaching career started at Memorial High in 1982. A one-year stop at Central High was sandwiched between two stints at West High, the second lasting from 1989-2002 and including an 11-year run as head coach.
He joined Trinity's staff in 2006, helping then-head coach John Trisciani rebuild a once-proud Division I program that became a perennial punching bag.
Now, five-year Trinity assistant Steve Burns assumes the controls. Burns, 35, served as defensive coordinator in 2007 and 2008. He called the offense from 2009-11.
“We're happy with our coaches in-house, and thought this was a chance to promote in-house,” Leonard told the statewide newspaper.
NO LOVE LOST
Lebanon High surely loved Valentine's Day, though Feb. 14 likely had the opposite effect on arch-rival Hanover High.
Courtesy of a 62-45 road win in Division II boys' basketball, Lebanon ended Hanover's bid for perfection. The Marauders entered the contest with a 12-0 league mark. Those wins included a 51-37 decision Jan. 28 on the Raiders' home court.
The biggest difference in the second meeting? Lebanon was locked in when it came to rebounding the basketball.
Senior Matt Davidson and junior Matthew Cowles, each with 17 points for the Raiders, led an aggressive effort to collect caroms and play tough defense.
PARTY OF ONE
NHIAA boys' hockey features 42 varsity teams across three divisions. Conway's Kennett High is the only remaining unbeaten club of the bunch.
That's because Feb. 15 the Eagles won their clash between the state's only remaining undefeated teams. On the road at Skate 3 in Tyngsboro, Mass., the Eagles edged Hudson's Alvirne High, 3-2.
Coach Mike Lane & Co. improved to 13-0 in league play (14-0 overall). The high-powered Broncos, scoring fewer than three goals for the first time this season, dropped to 13-1.
“Stars of the night were our blue-liners. Matt Kelly, Chris King and Dan Rivera were very solid once again, and all of our forwards were committed to the defensive game first and foremost,” Lane said. “John Bishop (21 saves) in net was rock-solid as well.”
Marc Thaler is a reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader & Sunday News. He co-hosts the “N.H. High School Sports Show” on Manchester's WGIR-AM 610 and the Seacoast's 96.7 FM every Saturday from 7-9 a.m. Read his “New Hampshire GameDay” blog and follow him on Twitter: @marc_thaler.