BEACON FALLS — The stage was important enough to overshadow the individual achievement. But then, early this volleyball season, administrators at Woodland had a facepalm moment.
Jim Amato won his 300th career match as the Hawks’ volleyball coach in the Class M state semifinals, and nobody — including Amato himself — realized it.
“Apparently it was against Waterford,” Amato said with a shrug, underscoring the fact that he was far more concerned with the Hawks’ 3-0 win at Haddam-Killingworth High on Nov. 15, 2022 to reach the Class M final than he was about his own personal milestone.
After Woodland swept St. Paul on Oct. 5 for Amato’s 309th victory, he reflected upon his head coaching journey that started in 2006 after years as an assistant at Naugatuck and Woodland. According to Amato, there’s one big difference between his rookie self and his current version.
“I get volleyball now,” Amato said. “I’m not the same coach I was 17 years ago. I knew enough to get the team together, but I’ve been smart enough to know that I’m not smart enough. I’ve taken a lot of advice from coaches in the NVL and throughout the state that has really helped me. The community of volleyball coaches is open when you have questions, and they support the game and other coaches.”
Over the years, Amato has established a track record that not only places him in the top tier of Naugatuck Valley League coaches, but rightfully among the upper echelon of coaches statewide.
Among his 300-plus victories are the 2013 Class M state championship, appearances in the 2012 and 2022 Class M state finals, three other visits to the state semifinals, and five NVL championships (2007, 2009, 2013, 2015 and 2022).
Not bad for a guy who never played competitive volleyball and used to have “Volleyball for Dummies” among the volumes of books in his Woodland office. That learning curve keeps him coming back for more.
“It’s a little different when you’re playing wall ball on the racquetball court at the YMCA or a pickup game at the local gym versus playing the high-speed game it’s become today,” Amato said. “Even since I’ve been coaching, the rules continue to change and techniques change. I find that engaging and exciting as a coach — every year, we try to assemble a new team and get them to buy into the program.”
He’s doing it again this year. The Hawks surged to an 11-1 start, losing only a five-setter to Seymour on Sept. 14. If the past is any indication, Woodland will be a much-improved team for the Oct. 25 rematch, and part of that annual growth is the confidence he instills in players.
“I like his coaching style. He stays very calm,” junior Lindsay Koliani said. “Even if we’re doing good or bad, you won’t be able to tell. He’s just giving constructive criticism along the way in a calm well, and we respond well to that.”
“What I like most about him is that when he knows we’ve made a couple of errors and we may be in our head, he doesn’t yell at us,” junior Ava Bianchini added. “He lets us take on our own mental game because he knows we’re hard on ourselves. Other coaches I’ve had yell, and it just breaks you down more.”
That demeanor extends to the rest of Amato’s coaching staff, especially Chris Tomlin. Tomlin coached the freshman team when Amato was the JV coach during the first few years of Woodland’s existence, and he slid over a seat when Amato took over the program.
They’ve also shared office space and classrooms since 2002, when Tomlin joined Woodland as a history teacher a year after Amato came in as one of the school’s first English teachers.
“Over 17 years and 300 wins, there has been a constant: Chris Tomlin right alongside me,” Amato said. “I don’t get to where I am without him. It’s not my 300; it’s our 300. A good head coach knows how to surround himself with better coaches, and I’ve gotten to reap the benefits of having Jenna Broadbent, Jess DeGennaro, and Craig Brown as assistant coaches, and Chris Tomlin has been alongside for 17 years. That’s what makes 300 important to me.”
Whatever Amato’s final total of wins and championships will be, he says those numbers won’t matter to him as much as the people who helped him earn them.
“I’m most proud of what these girls walk off the court with and the desire that a lot of them have to come back and help out [coaching],” Amato said. “Hopefully the memories of what they did while they were here stay with them.”