(Photo by Harry Scull)
In nine seasons on the local high school hoops scene, there are some select moments that have a special place and stand out in my mind. My favorite one from the 2016 season happened late on a Saturday night in Glens Falls, after watching seven consecutive games there that day. As I stood on the court taking a picture of the newly crowned champions of NYSPHAA Class B, a boisterous chant broke out. On the eve of his induction into the New York State Basketball Hall of Fame, Jeff Anastasia's undefeated Huskies erupted into a passionate chorus of "Hall of Fame, Hall of Fame, ..." that echoed throughout the acoustics of the old Civic Center. His players were proud of him and couldn't have been any happier for him. I will never forget that moment from his players, or the incredible campaign the 2016 Centercourt Coach of the Year led them through.
The following morning, Anastasia took his rightful place in the Hall of Fame, and had his entire team, along with his family, on hand for the occasion. It was something that meant the world to iconic coach and he never tried hide those emotions. I heard it from him in January and again in late February during the team's postseason run. He knew he was being inducted regardless, but what he really wanted was his boys to be on hand there with him.
"He talked at the beginning of the season about how special that moment would be if we were to win a state championship and have him be honored the next day," Olean floor general Jake Cavana said.
What made having the team there so special went beyond winning the title. To Coach Anastasia, the players he'd guided over the past two seasons had become family to him.
"He treats everyone individually like we're his own kids," said Elijah Ramadhan, a team leader and Second Team All-Centercourt selection. "He would do anything for us...we could call him up at 2 am, whatever we need, he's there."
Anastasia had talked to me about what this particular group meant to him back in early January and saw the potential in them, based on the team chemistry that had developed. As the season wore on, that bond only grew stronger.
"We definitely felt a connection with him with how long we played together," said Cavana. "It wasn't like a normal season, we got to spend a lot of extra time together."
They spent so much time together, they ended up with the best team in program history. While the state championship was the second for Olean, with the first coming in 2008, the 28 wins and undefeated season in the NYSPHAA were both firsts for the Huskies.
"We just know that Olean is a winning program and that's because of him," Cavana said. "Going into every year, players have motivation to keep the tradition going."
The winning tradition at Olean is only part of what motivates each new group that suits up in a Huskies' uniform. Seeing a coach that puts in the type of consistent effort that drives Anastasia to be great has a trickle-down effect to everyone associated with the program. Even the gentlemen that do scouting for Anastasia are among the most dedicated I've ever come across.
"He does a lot of little things for us that not a lot of other coaches do," Ramadhan said. "Amazing scouting...he doesn't take anyone lightly."
"He puts in more time than I've ever seen any coach put in," Cavana added. "Seven days a week, he's either working with us, breaking down film, or working with other coaches."
The results of Anastasia's dedication and mastery of his craft have always translated to winning seasons at Olean. In nine of the last 10 seasons, the Huskies have won a Section VI crown. Since 2007, if Olean is in Class B, they advance to the regionals. But with all the winning over many years, this season will be viewed as the greatest in school history, which is really saying something. Not only did Olean win a state championship in Class B and go 27-0 in the process, but with the exception of Fredonia, they did it without another team getting within single digits of them. That includes road wins at Timon and Jamestown, the regional, state semifinal, and state championship - another feat I've yet to see a team in NYS Class B accomplish.
Beyond the success on the court over many seasons, something else that defines Olean basketball is class. Watching the way his players carry themselves over nine seasons, the only thing that changes are the faces wearing the jerseys. The body language, heart, hustle, and class has been the same with every group I've ever seen him coach.
"He always tells us to be classy, we want to known for that, win or lose, said Cavana. "If we ever do something that doesn't represent us the right way, he always brings it up."
Something else Anastasia brought up frequently was how much he cared about the players on his team, particularly towards the end of the season when the realization was approaching that his time with that particular group was nearing an end. He would say "I just love these guys" and talk about what they meant to him, and as I'd stand there speaking with him, I never doubted his sincerity for a second. In talking with Cavana about his legendary coach, I learned that Anastasia shared that same affection with his players directly.
"He'd come up to me and tell me, you know Jake, I love you and I wouldn't trade you for anything."
After all the interviews were over and the Huskies were alone together in the locker room of the Glens Falls Civic Center with their state championship plaque, they celebrated the accomplishment together. There were more hugs exchanged, more high-fives were slapped, and a great victory speech from the coach to his players. There was even some celebratory dancing going on...
"He dabbed after our state championship," Ramadhan told me. "I put him on the spot and showed him how to do it, kind of a spontaneous thing...it was so funny."
Just another great memory after a season of getting the most out of his players, achieving greatness together, and making a little history.