One of the things about being around long enough is you get to see coaches come and go. You sure hate to see the good ones go, though, and Dave Spinella is one of the good ones.
Not to make it sound like Spinella, 38, has died or anything like that. He has just stepped down as the Riverhead High School girls basketball coach to embark on a new chapter in his life. That fact was enough to generate more than a few tears last Wednesday night when Spinella coached his final game for the Blue Waves.
After 14 seasons in charge of the team (and two seasons as the junior varsity coach before that), Spin, as his players call him, has certainly made his mark, in basketball terms as well as human terms. His players adore him because he treated them like his extended family and cared for them more as people than merely basketball players.
That was one of the lessons junior guard Kim Ligon took away from her time playing for Spinella.
“Spin always told us, there’s more to life than just basketball,” she said. “Who you are as a person is more than who you are as a basketball player. … He emphasized that there are other parts to life that you have to focus on.”
So, Riverhead’s final game of the season last Wednesday night was about much more than a basketball game. It was a chance to say goodbye to Spinella (at least for the time being) and show appreciation for what he has done.
A 161-101 career record, an appearance in the New York State Class AA semifinals in 2012, three league championships and 10 trips to the playoffs go on his basketball coaching résumé. His influence on his players, however, has been considerable.
That is why former Riverhead players attended a pregame ceremony as tribute was paid to the coach they have such a close connection to.
“We’re losing a great person,” Riverhead athletic director Brian Sacks said. “He’s phenomenal. We’re really losing one of our best coaches.”
Players echoed those thoughts.
The word senior guard Mary Reiter used to describe Spinella was “amazing.” Of the coach who taught her how to take a jump shot and much more, she said: “As a coach, man, he’s everything. He’s brilliant, he’s wise, he’s caring. He’s honestly like a second dad to us.”
Riverhead’s junior varsity coach, Jim Janecek, the man Spinella succeeded, said: “We love him. He’s going to be sorely missed here. He is Riverhead basketball, without a doubt.”
What was the night like for Spinella, whose emotions surfaced right after the game when assistant coach Paul Bertram hugged him?
“Very special,” he said. “I can’t put into words to describe how thoughtful it was of everybody to do it. I didn’t want to take anything away from Senior Night, but I understood what was going on and I am forever grateful.”
Spinella is stepping down so he can spend more time with his wife, Tara, and their three children, ages 1, 4 and 7.
“I know that I’m not ready to stop coaching, but it’s the right thing, and when you’re a father, you got to do what’s right for your family first,” he said. “I’ll miss it.”
“The last 16 years have been indescribably amazing, with so many great kids and so many great parents and so many great games and this community, and it’s just been a wonderful ride,” he continued. “Now it’s somebody else’s turn.”
So, the Spinella era has ended. But he is still young, and it doesn’t mean a new Spinella era can’t be born sometime in the future.
Maybe if we wait long enough, we will have the opportunity to see Spinella return to coaching one day. He has left that door open.
During the pregame ceremony, Spinella told the assembled crowd that growing up in his house, family was always the most important thing and his parents “taught me that no matter how far away — we talk about this in the locker room — or how long you’re gone, you can always come home.”
Photo caption: Riverhead coach Dave Spinella diagraming a play during a timeout in his final game with the Blue Waves. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)