Hearing Coaching’s Call
Ex-Raider Thrilled to Be on Thetford Sideline
Blendon Salls, the new head boys basketball coach at Thetford Academy, stands at the outdoor basketball courts outside the CCBA in Lebanon on Tuesday.
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Blendon Salls, the new head boys basketball coach at Thetford Academy stands outside the CCBA in Lebanon, N.H., on August 20, 2013.
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Lebanon — A stay-at-home dad can be a full-time job, but not so much that Blendon Salls won’t get out for some part-time work this winter.
The 2001 Lebanon High graduate recently became the latest of boys basketball coach Kieth Matte’s former Raiders to join the sideline fraternity when he was hired to take over for Justin Smith with the Thetford Academy boys hoop program. It will be Salls’ first foray into the varsity high school realm, but one for which he feels prepared.
“I think the main reason I wanted to give it a try was because I’ve been a jayvee coach for four or five years at Lebanon,” Salls said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “I think I have the experience of running my own program (Lebanon Longhorns AAU), which is nice but not like high school basketball. … (Thetford) has a lot of kids that are working extremely hard. They’re really a family-oriented group, similar to Lebanon.”
Smith, 32, stepped down in June because of increased family and work commitments. In his stead comes Salls, 30, someone who never seriously considered coaching until it drew him back to the gym.
“He’s not like somebody who was a good player who came out of college and threw himself into coaching,” Matte said. “He really knows the game, loves it, knows basketball as well as anyone. He works hard for the program and the kids in the Upper Valley. It really is his turn.”
Salls played two varsity seasons and part of a third as a Raider, starting as a lanky point guard his junior and senior seasons . What he may have lacked in skills, Salls countered with his chatterbox ways, traits that have continued in the transition from basketball student to basketball teacher.
“As a point guard, he was unconventional,” Matte said. “He was tall; he thought he was a forward, but he wasn’t a great shooter, despite what he might tell you. He always talked — he talked to the refs, talked to his teammates, talked to the other team. He’s a big communicator. … That’s essential as a coach.”
Salls, a self-professed “gym rat” as a kid, got away from the hardwood following high school and a brief stint at Concord’s New Hampshire Technical Institute. Living and working in Plymouth, Salls came to work with Plymouth High boys hoop coach Jim Carey — husband of recently departed Lebanon athletic director Kelley Carey — and the experience opened his eyes.
“I did some reffing, some other stuff for (Carey) and that brought me back into the gym,” Salls recalled. “I hadn’t done much with basketball in Plymouth, but it was one of those things that drew me back in. When we moved back to Lebanon, Kieth contacted me about the reserve coaching job. From then on, I’ve been hooked.”
Salls considers his AAU experience, both as a player and coach, invaluable to his new job.
As a youth, Salls learned there was much more to basketball beyond the Upper Valley during a summer with a Concord-based AAU program. He went from a guy in charge with the Raiders “to the 13th man on a 12-man team,” he cracked. “It was one of those things where (I was) invited with open arms … but one of those things where you realized those prep school kids are at a different level. But it was great.”
Salls has tried to provide similar opportunities with the Longhorns, occasionally taking teams to Massachusetts for tournaments that have been as educational as competitive.
“There are people trying to go to college to play, taking that next step by trying to play basketball year-round,” he said. “It just opens some kids’ eyes. The first time you bring a junior high group to Massachusetts, you realize you’re not a big fish in a small pond anymore. It’s nice to show those kids that.”
Thetford has been something of a big fish in the Vermont Division III pond lately, making the state finals twice in Smith’s four years. The Panthers own three state crowns out of eight championship visits since 1993, according to Vermont Principals Association annals.
Smith guided the Panthers to a 19-5 record last winter and a trip to the D-III title game. Salls inherits a team that lost nearly half of its roster to graduation but is expected to have shooter Brandon Gray, last year’s leading scorer (12.54 points per game), as a foundation.
“I want to get the offense installed; they ran stuff that is a little bit different from what I run,” Salls said. “Their defensive schemes were different from mine. … Something that Kieth has instilled in me the last few years is to play physical defense and a fast-break offense. I think that is something we’re going to have to transition into.”
Right now, Salls is making the transition into being a full-time dad. With his longtime girlfriend, Crystallee Newton, working at Norris Cotton Cancer Center, Salls has stepped out of the working world to spend his days overseeing his 4-year-old son, Gavin, and his 3-month-old daughter, McKenna. He also hopes to resume coursework toward his NHTI degree this year.
“I have a great woman in my life; she’s helping me with the transition,” Salls said. “Having a lot of free time from work will allow me to catch film, go through what we did the night before for basketball.”
As for Matte, Salls represents the latest ex-Raider to cast his fate in basketball coaching or administration, a group that includes Scott Faucher (St. Michael’s assistant), Chris Holmes (Holy Cross director of operations) and Scott MacNamee (Stevens High head coach).
“I’m a little tree,” Matte joked.
With a new branch heading out in a new direction.
Greg Fennell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3226.