By Kyle Brennan, Citizen’s News
BEACON FALLS — A Naugy guy is now manning the Hawks’ nest.
Brendan Heller, a 2008 Naugatuck High grad and former multiple-sport standout with the Greyhounds, is the new head coach for the Woodland boys swim team. He succeeds Tom Currier, who stepped down after 11 years leading the Hawks.
Heller admits that it’s a bit odd to trade his garnet and grey for black and gold.
“I have a lot of Naugy pride, but Woodland is a good school,” Heller said.
The 30-year-old brings plenty of swimming and coaching experience to the table. He was a four-year swimmer at Bryant University and started coaching shortly after his competitive career ended. His most recent gig was as a full-time assistant coach at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and previous stops include several clubs, colleges and private high schools in the Tri-State area.
Heller was actually taking courses while coaching at Carnegie Mellon last winter. When COVID-19 ended his in-person coaching and schooling, he “left Pittsburgh and decided to spend a week at my parents’ house in Naugatuck,” Heller said. “It ended up being for longer than a week, and then I decided not to go back to Pittsburgh.”
He now lives in Orange with his girlfriend and has coaching obligations in three places — morning practices as an assistant with Sacred Heart University, afternoon practices at Woodland, and evening practices with the Shelton-Monroe Rapids. He recently began substitute teaching at Woodland, too.
Mike Magas, the longtime head coach of the girls squad, remained on staff as Heller’s assistant coach. Heller wants to emulate the success that Magas has built during the fall season.
“I obviously know him from my time swimming,” Heller said, noting that Magas was the head coach of the boys team during Heller’s career at Naugatuck. “He’s gotten the girls to be successful and competing for championships.”
Heller also learned plenty from his high school coach, Jim McKee, who retired from leading the Naugy boys a few years ago but still coaches the girls squad.
“Jim McKee is a natural motivator — I definitely took that away,” Heller said. “Just getting to know people and finding ways to work with them one-on-one — challenging them and being honest, but also caring and having empathy.”
Woodland athletic director Chris Decker liked everything about Heller’s background in hiring the new coach.
“He’s got a strong background in swimming,” Decker said. “He’s been coaching at the collegiate level for a while and has done a good job there. He’s worked at the club level, so he has strong experience in coaching. He knows his techniques with his experience. The other thing is that he has strong Valley roots. He knows the schools around here, and we feel like he’s a young person who can continue on the strong tradition at our school for a long period of time.”
Heller also admits that he has a strong group of swimmers to work with as he builds the program.
“I inherited a pretty strong program,” Heller said. “We’ve got some talented swimmers who are swimmers year-round, and then there are some talented swimmers who just swim in high school — they haven’t done much swimming since the season got cut off last March. We have a good mix of kids. Developing depth will be important. Jake (Arisian) is back on the team and he’s really strong. I don’t know how many kids in the league will be better than him.”
Heller aims to see development and hard work from every swimmer on the roster, from the guys in the middle lanes to those on the outside. He relies upon his experience from walking on with Bryant as someone who wasn’t a star swimmer.
“The coach afforded me the opportunity to be on the team,” Heller said. “I was one of the slower guys, but the work ethic allowed me to stay on the team. It’s important to give it your best every day. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the fastest or the slowest — if everyone’s putting in the work, you usually have a good depth chart of everyone to put up lifetime-best performances. That’s how you win championships.”
Heller can’t hide his championship aspirations. His family had plenty such success at Naugatuck — he won Naugatuck Valley League titles during his last two years as a Greyhound, while his younger brother, Trevor, and older sister, Kristin, won four apiece.
“I told these guys on the first day: There’s nothing better than winning a championship,” Heller said. “So that’s our ultimate goal. We have to work every day. I don’t want to put expectations out there, but we’re going to try to win some sort of championship this year.”