Coach Does It All: Royals' Moreno Performs Balancing Act
South Royalton — As the South Royalton School athletic director and assistant principal, as well as father of three small children, Jeff Moreno was already a man of many hats before the start of basketball season.
When Stretch Gillam stepped down on the day of the Royal boys’ first preseason practice, Moreno realized he simply had to make room for one more.
Returning to the sidelines as an emergency fill-in, Moreno appears slated to spend another full season as South Royalton’s coach. The 36-year old interviewed a handful of candidates to relieve him prior to the Royals’ season opener two weeks ago, but a series of possible hires were followed by a series of unfortunate setbacks.
“I interviewed (potential coaches) who seemed like the right fit, asked them to come to practice and they didn’t show up,” Moreno said before last night’s 72-55 loss to visiting Rivendell. “That happened three times.
“I felt bad for the players, because I’d tell them it looked like I had a coach for them, and then it didn’t happen.”
Not that Moreno regrets the way things have turned out.
In returning to the team for the first time since leading it to a Vermont Division III state championship in 2006-07, the White River Junction native is excited to work with a group of players he once had in the classroom.
“I was actually jealous of Stretch, because this is a great group of boys to work with,” Moreno said. “I used to coach fifth and sixth grade (at South Royalton) and these kids were the best ever. They’ve got a lot of spunk.”
The busiest man at Royals home games even before he became coach, Moreno hasn’t relinquished any of his pregame duties. He still sits at the end of the scorer’s table during pregame warmups, using his laptop to crank songs over the gym’s loudspeakers to get players pumped for the game. When it’s time to introduce the starting lineups, Moreno still handles the microphone.
Yet as much as Moreno enjoys being omnipresent, his other responsibilities simply won’t allow him to be there for the team all the time. For example, there have been times when a school administrators’ meeting or family conundrum have interfered with his ability to be at practice. Luckily for Moreno, he’s got a team that can handle it.
“With a typical group of guys, the (time commitment demands) would have had quite an effect on everything else I do,” he said. “With these guys, I don’t have to worry about it. There have been times I’ve been 30 or 45 minutes late to practice, and when I get there, they’re not waiting for me, they’re running practice. I just have an adult in there watching them and they’re running it themselves.”
If the players had to deal with the uncertainty during preseason, they’re glad they ended up with Moreno.
“He brings the energy we need on this team, and he just knows how to coach basketball,” said senior guard Troy Tracy. Added fellow co-captain Ian Kinnarney: “He’s just a great guy to have around. He helps us gel as a team, and gives us great chemistry.”
Rivendell 72, S. Royalton 55
South Royalton — Raptors junior Nathaniel Eastman dropped in a career-best 22 points as Rivendell improved to 3-1.
Playing just their second game following a pair of weather-related postponements, the Royals fell to 0-2 despite a 25-point night from junior Nate Moore.
The Raptors caused 21 South Royalton turnovers, many of them via steal thanks to an aggressive defense.
Rivendell, a D-III finalist last year, held an 11-6 advantage in offensive rebounds, scored often in transition and shot 22-for-29 from the free throw line.
“They’re a well coached team that executes on both sides of the ball,” Moreno said. “They hit shots and then they get right back on defense. Hopefully, we can learn from a game like this.”
Luke Bell, Eastman, Tim Stimson and Cole Stever all hit 3-pointers in the first half for the Raptors, who built a 33-18 lead on a layup feed from Josh Marshall to Kolin Huntington with 1:15 left in the first half.
A pair of Jack Steketee free throws stretched the Raptors’ lead to 18 in the third quarter before the Royals went on a 9-0 spurt to cut it to single digits. A pair of Sam Berk baskets sandwiched around a Logan Gardyne jumper and Stimson’s bank-shot 3 made for a 9-0 Rivendell rally to make it 46-38 early in the fourth quarter.
Eastman scored seven points in a span of 1:06 during an ensuing 13-3 Rivendell spurt, and the Raptors went 4-for-5 from the line in the final minutes.
“We have a long way to go, but we did a good job against South Royalton’s press tonight,” said Rivendell coach Tim Dyke. “They’re a very scrappy team and it was no easy game.”
Jared Pendak can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3306.