NAUGATUCK — The Little Pal basketball league ushered in its 61st season at City Hill Middle School on Nov. 30. The league has thrived through all these years, introducing Naugatuck youngsters to the game of basketball through the volunteerism that has been the staple of this program.
It was on a pre-winter day back in 1952, nestled in the cozy confines of the YMCA basement, when Little Pal Basketball was born. In the James Naismith peach-basket era, the gymnasium took on the look of old-time basketball with its high, caged windows offering what little light there was and the balcony overlooking the pristine floor below.
The program today boasts 420 youngsters and approximately 75 volunteer coaches utilizing six schools along with the YMCA gymnasium. The 10-team senior boys program, consisting of 120 boys, plays its games at City Hill. There is a six-team senior girls league, a nine-team junior boys league and a 10-team junior girls league, along with morning league for 7- and 8-year-olds.
The one thing they all have in common is volunteer coaches who love the sport. They’re coaches like Bob Burns Sr., who has been patrolling the sidelines for 48 years and has coached his grandchildren. Former league directors Ray Adamaitis, Mike Watkins, Dan Starziski, Bill Carson and Scott Robinson have seen the program steadily grow through the volunteerism that has been the backbone of this organization.
Last Saturday, Nardelli’s head coach Jim Stevens Sr., an 18-year veteran on the sidelines, gave his team words of encouragement as it trailed 15-3. Those words struck a chord as Nardelli’s stormed back to pull out a 44-37 win over B&G Sports.
It’s been almost 15 years since Stevens coached his sons, Jimmy and Justin, but he has never lost the passion of teaching youngsters the valuable life lessons of the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
“Why do I do it?” Stevens asked. “It’s really quite simple: I do it for the love of the game. I began coaching quite a while ago for the old Peter & Paul Tigers of the Union City Little League, and I’ve been at it ever since.”
“We certainly appreciate the dedication of these individuals. There have been many key volunteers through the years that have kept this program thriving.”- Joan Andrew, Little pal coordinator
Stevens married Kimberly Carusillo and has also coached his stepsons PJ, Drew and Jordan while encouraging his stepdaughter Samantha, the family cheerleader. With ten years of coaching Pop Warner football, six years coaching Naugatuck youth soccer and 18 years of Little Pal Basketball, Stevens would be lost if not on the sidelines.
“It’s a passion of mine to coach,” Stevens said. “I really enjoyed it when my kids were involved in the program and I still enjoy it to this day. I spent three years in the morning league, three years as an assistant in the afternoon league and now 12 years in the senior league. My teams have made the playoffs in 15 out of 18 years, but this is more than winning and losing. This is about teaching them lessons that they can take with them throughout their life. That’s what it’s all about and that’s why we are all here.”
Stevens isn’t the only coach who has caught the bug well after his children have graduated from the program. Bob Burns Jr. coaches Ion Bank, Dave Mariano coaches Naugatuck Valley Savings and Loan and Jay DeJesus coaches B&G Sports. The Hayward family has made it a family affair with Brett as the head coach and Tyler and Dave as assistants for Post 17.
“We certainly appreciate the dedication of these individuals,” league coordinator Joan Andrew said. “There have been many key volunteers through the years that have kept this program thriving. This spring will mark our 15th season of Spring Little Pal basketball, a coed league for ages 11 to 14 which runs from April to June. What has made this league such a success is the volunteers who coach from the heart and for the love of the game.”