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A New Outlook for Canes

New Coach Leads a Roundball Revival

  • Hartford coach Steve Landon prepares his team before the second quarter of the Hurricanes’ game with MSJ last night in White River Junction. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Hartford coach Steve Landon prepares his team before the second quarter of the Hurricanes’ game with MSJ last night in White River Junction. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Mount St. Joseph’s Zachary Lanzillo (22) gets a hand on the ball as Hartford’s Landon Branson tries to shield on the way to the hoop. MSJ’s Jahnathan Mitchell is at left. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Mount St. Joseph’s Zachary Lanzillo (22) gets a hand on the ball as Hartford’s Landon Branson tries to shield on the way to the hoop. MSJ’s Jahnathan Mitchell is at left. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hartford’s Cameron Gaudette leans into an MSJ defender last night. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Hartford’s Cameron Gaudette leans into an MSJ defender last night. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hartford coach Steve Landon prepares his team before the second quarter of the Hurricanes’ game with MSJ last night in White River Junction. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Mount St. Joseph’s Zachary Lanzillo (22) gets a hand on the ball as Hartford’s Landon Branson tries to shield on the way to the hoop. MSJ’s Jahnathan Mitchell is at left. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Hartford’s Cameron Gaudette leans into an MSJ defender last night. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

White River Junction — Good thing Steve Landon decided not to guide the Hartford High girls basketball team for another season. He might have had to buy a new suit.

Instead, by opting to move over to the Hurricanes’ boys hoop program within weeks of coaching the Hartford girls to a state title, Landon can trot out the same jacket and slacks, the same white shirt, the same light blue tie and not have them feel dated. Heck, the shirt’s unbuttoned at the collar and the tie is a memory once the game’s done anyway, such as with last night’s 70-57 loss to Mount St. Joseph at Hartford High.

The tradeoff is a challenge Landon couldn’t have imagined assuming this time last year. The prior winter was all about a title for the girls. The ongoing winter is about trying to replicate that success for a boys program that hasn’t advanced out of the VPA quarterfinals since 1984.

“I’m with a group of guys that I really think has a lot of talent,” Landon said after the Canes fell to 6-4 at the season’s midpoint. “I think they come to work every day. I think they want to win, so I really enjoy being with these guys. My sons are with this group, so I have a personal relationship with all of these guys.

“I’ve known these guys a long time. But I’ve never coached them.”

Thus far, the results are leaning toward the positive.

Although Hartford couldn’t solve MSJ senior guard Jahnathan Mitchell, who scored 19 of his game-high 28 points in the first half, the Canes showed some moxie in staying with the defending Vermont Division II state champions. The hosts trailed by eight points after one quarter, rallying behind the play of seniors Nick Fucci (22 points) and Josh Claflin (12) for a pair of one-point leads late in the first half.

The combination of a slow third-quarter start and one moment of impertinence by Landon gave the Mounties (6-2) enough of a foothold to gain a double-digit lead they protected the rest of the night.

“The coaching change was pretty quick,” Fucci said. “Before school ended and summer started, we had a meeting with Steve; he told us what was going to be going on. We got to go with him to a team camp, we practiced two days a week and had a game at least one day a week. We got used to him a lot, and that helped.”

Landon didn’t give the idea of switching jobs much credence until after March 17, the day the Hurricane girls capped a 19-5 season with a 48-35 win over Mount Abraham in the D-II girls hoop final, giving Hartford its first state crown in the sport. Up to that point, any given basketball day might include three different destinations for him: his own team’s activity along with those for his sons Branson and Bryce.

By that point, Hartford was in need of a new boys boss. Mike Gaudette resigned for health reasons at the start of the season, and Mike Hathorn took over on an interim basis as the guys went 7-15.

“Obviously, it was rough losing (Gaudette) last year so early in the season,” Fucci said. “We were trying to get used to his system, and we were adjusting most of last year, getting ready for the playoffs, getting into a new system. I think that hurt us last year, in that the whole year we were trying to adjust.”

Change came quickly in the spring. Landon swapped squads, with Ed Kehoe inheriting the girls (whose roster includes his daughter, Kelsey). It gave Landon a full summer to get his new team moving forward come November.

“I didn’t foresee the job being open, really, and if it wasn’t for Mike’s health reasons, it probably wouldn’t be,” Landon said. “It wasn’t something I foresaw doing.

“My sons being in the program is ultimately the reason why I had to make the decision. It wasn’t an easy one for me.”

Like Landon’s past teams, Hartford’s first focus has been defense. Concentrating on half-court play, the Canes entered last night averaging 50.4 points allowed per game, down nearly eight from 2011-12.

Mitchell made defending nearly impossible last night. The shifty senior scored five of the Mounties’ first six baskets, employing an arsenal of crossover dribbles, accurate pull-up jumpers and speed in transition. By halftime, he’d accounted for all but nine of MSJ’s points.

“He’s really pushed us hard to play defense,” Fucci said of Landon. “Defense is what’s going to start winning us games. Offense will come, but we’ve really got to play defense.”

Despite two turnovers to open the second half, Hartford had MSJ to within 42-36 on a Fucci 3-pointer with 2:23 left in the third quarter. The Mounties’ Collin Gilbert answered in similar fashion 18 seconds later; nonplussed by perceived contact under the basket, Landon called a timeout and stepped onto the court, drawing a technical foul.

Matt Sanborn (18 points) hit both free throws, and Mitchell followed with two more on a drive to the hoop moments later. The deficit now at 13, Landon was apologizing to his team before anyone hit the bleachers for the break.

That episode aside, a number of things are working in Landon’s favor. The Canes have two aggressive scorers in Claflin and Fucci, neither of whom wavered in a forest of green MSJ jerseys most of the night. They have some size in 6-foot-4 Justin DeVoid and 6-5 Kyle Perkins to compete for rebounds.

Hopefully, they’ll enjoy some stability on the bench. Landon misses the players he guided last winter — he amicably chatted up some of the Hurricane girls prior to last night’s game — but he also has found a new team to direct and likes where it’s going.

“Leaving a team and some kids I’d built strong relationships over the last four years was very hard,” Landon admitted with a laugh. “The positive would be I don’t have to buy a bunch of new clothes, because I didn’t switch schools. So I can still wear my same stuff.”

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.

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Mount St. Joseph at Hartford boys basketball in White River Junction, Vt., on January 11, 2013. MSJ won, 70-57. Valley News — James M. Patterson …