Hartford boys basketball set to add former Woodstock, South Royalton coach

  • Woodstock boys basketball coach Jeff Thomas goes over instructions during a break in a 2015 Vermont Division II semifinal with Otter Valley at Barre Auditorium. Thomas is in line to become the new boys coach at Hartford High.

Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 08, 2019

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Hartford High’s boys basketball team appears to have found its new head coach, one with a track record of building programs into championship contenders.

Hartford athletic director Jeff Moreno confirmed on Wednesday that he’s putting the finishing touches on hiring former South Royalton School and Woodstock High coach Jeff Thomas to lead the team.

The position was vacated in early March when Steve Landon, who coached the program for seven seasons after a six-year stint with Hartford’s girls, stepped down, ending a 24-year tenure with Hartford athletics. Thomas also will be hired as a student support specialist at the school.

“(Thomas) is the complete package,” said Moreno, who worked with Thomas at South Royalton from 2006-11. “He’s an educator, he has a high character, he coaches the right way, he uses coaching as a tool to improve young people’s lives and he’s passionate as the day is long. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone as passionate as him.

“I also think, where Hartford basketball is at this point in time, he is the perfect fit for us to come in and do what needs to be done.”

While some of Hartford’s athletic programs have grown and thrived under Moreno, boys basketball has remained one of the school’s longest-running unsolved mysteries. The program has not won a state title since 1929, has not been to a state final since 1933 and has not been to a state semifinal since 1984. It also hasn’t won a playoff game since Landon’s first year at the helm in 2013.

Landon, who won a state crown with the girls program in 2012, went 48-99 with the boys, 1-6 in VPA tournaments, during his tenure. The coaching search, Moreno said, made the need for broad changes evident.

“I think we learned that we need to change our culture,” said Moreno, who said the athletic department interviewed about a half-dozen candidates. “It goes beyond a simple fix. We had some great conversations with people about how they would approach it. The hiring process brought all of it to the table.

“What I really liked about (Thomas) was his flexibility, meeting the Hartford boys where they are. He isn’t bringing in his system. ... He spoke at length about working with the pieces. I think his style — up-tempo, gritty defense — fits the Hurricanes’ kids really well.”

Thomas already has a few rebuilding projects on his basketball resume. He led South Royalton to its last state championship as a No. 12 seed in D-II, in 2007. Taking over Woodstock in 2011, Thomas went from a 3-17 campaign in his first season to back-to-back-to-back trips to the D-II state finals from 2014-16. Woodstock won its first state title in 17 years with a perfect 23-0 mark in 2016.

Thomas stepped down as coach to take an administrative position with the Woodstock athletic department in 2016 and has been coaching in Woodstock’s middle school program for the past three years.

“Once you’re a varsity coach, it’s in your blood,” Thomas said on Wednesday. “I’ve been doing middle school for the past few years. To get back at running a varsity program is always exciting.

“(Moreno) and I are pretty good friends,” he added. “Knowing his character, the way he supports his coaches, it’s a pretty exciting place.”

Moreno said Thomas’ body of coaching work at Woodstock only part of the reason he was hired.

“He’s an impressive person,” Moreno said. “He made me a better coach and a better person. I taught with him, worked with him. It was sad to see him go to Woodstock (in 2011), but what he did down there, the way he turned that program around, I wasn’t surprised. I was thoroughly impressed. He’s a very impressive human being. We are very fortunate to have hired him.”

For Thomas, changing a team’s culture starts in the offseason with summer basketball camps and weight programs.

“It takes a lot of commitment, obviously,” he said. “One of the things that’s important, too, is summer basketball camps, creating a culture of basketball. You’re promoting your team, your program and basketball.”

Moreno admitted Thomas has a steep hill to climb. But the Hartford AD is excited about Thomas’ experience, the way he delivers his messages and his program-building pedigree.

“When you take over a program, especially one like basketball where we are, you bring in last year’s roster and team that’s existed,” Moreno said. “Coming in, and we had some young kids on our roster, with a fresh perspective and a fresh set of eyes, it’s almost like a do-over. ... He’s an extremely positive human being, a great communicator and he’s genuine. That will carry him well. He has our full support.”

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.