Batter up: Ex-college baseball player at the helm of Sharon boys basketball

By BENJAMIN ROSENBERG

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-03-2023 4:47 PM

SHARON — Ben Montenegro is used to having a lot on his plate.

A 2021 graduate of Wagner College, Montenegro balanced his academic workload with NCAA Division I baseball at the Staten Island, N.Y., school. So after he moved on to pursue an accelerated Juris Doctor program at Vermont Law School, coaching high school basketball on the side seemed like something he could fit into his schedule without much trouble.

Montenegro assisted Dave Brown during his lone season leading the Sharon Academy boys team last season, and this year the 23-year-old was elevated to head coach for the Phoenix.

“Sometimes I forget how close in age (the players and I) really are,” Montenegro said. “It helps me a lot when I talk to them about real-life things. It’s easy for me to relate to them because we have shared experiences. I coach them hard, but I’m also the first one to pat them on the back or the first one they can call if they need something.”

A Toms River, N.J. native, Montenegro played baseball and basketball in high school, then spent four years as a utility player with the Seahawks’ baseball team. The college athlete lifestyle meant 6 a.m. weightlifting sessions and up to four-hour daily practices on top of classes and travel for games, which Montenegro said makes his law school workload seem manageable.

Upon arriving in South Royalton — where he will complete his law degree in two years rather than the traditional three — Montenegro knew he wanted to stay involved with sports. He captains the VLS basketball team, which has traveled for tournaments throughout New England. The VLS team was looking for places to practice last year and found space at Sharon Academy, which led Montenegro to reach out to athletic director Blake Fabrikant about coaching opportunities.

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Fabrikant had just stepped down as head coach after 12 seasons, wanting to spend more time with his family. By the time Montenegro contacted him, Fabrikant had already hired Brown, but Brown added him to the staff as an assistant, offering Montenegro a portion of his coaching stipend.

“He had a lot of youthful energy and confidence,” Fabrikant said. “He reminded me of the younger version of myself. Really passionate, well-spoken, could connect to the kids really well. The fact that he wanted to volunteer his time said that he was invested in the program.”

Brown, who was 70 last season, had 10 years of coaching experience at the recreational levels, but had never led a high school team before. He started a part-time job after the season, which could have conflicted with his ability to continue coaching this winter.

The Phoenix began the year with just nine players and are now down to eight after senior Jack Doris broke his leg. Montenegro does not have an assistant, and his team is too small to even play five-on-five in practice, but Sharon’s practices include full-court layups, three-man weave and fast-break drills, followed by team defense, conditioning and a modified scrimmage. A group of Sharon alumni sometimes help out with scrimmages, along with Montenegro’s VLS teammates.

With Doris out, the Phoenix (1-3) rely on their other three seniors — Jack Lloyd, Caleb Benjamin and Parker Bogardus — for nearly all of their scoring. Benjamin leads the team with 16.8 points per game, with Bogardus averaging 9.3 and Lloyd 6.3.

“He pushes us every practice. He wants the best for us,” Lloyd said. “He really gets us working. Dave Brown, he was pretty laid back, rec league vibe, but now that Ben is the head coach, it’s full steam ahead.”

Sharon has been challenged by its early season schedule — the Phoenix have already played defending VPA Division IV champion Blue Mountain twice, suffering a 76-19 loss in the first meeting before a more respectable 60-31 defeat on Tuesday. They also visited Rivendell, which had an undefeated regular season last year, and have upcoming road tests against White River Valley and Mid Vermont Christian.

Montenegro picked up his first win as head coach in Sharon’s home opener, a 64-54, double-overtime victory over Craftsbury on Dec. 19. Benjamin led the Phoenix with 28 points, and Bogardus hit a 3-pointer in the closing seconds of regulation to send the game to overtime.

“It’s not easy to come out and play bigger schools with more resources and more kids to pull from,” Montenegro said. “They come out here and work just as hard as anyone. I keep telling them, ‘Keep putting in the work, and good things come.’ It was great to get a feel for what it’s like to win.”

Montenegro will graduate from VLS in May, likely leaving Fabrikant to search for Sharon’s fourth head coach in as many years. With Lloyd, Benjamin and Bogardus also set to move on and the rest of the roster lacking in game experience, the program could face an uncertain future.

But for now, Fabrikant is more than happy to have a qualified leader on his bench.

“Ben, out of everyone, is the one who uses me as a resource the most,” Fabrikant said. “There’s no ego there. He wants to learn, he wants to be better and he’s completely selfless. He really is in it for the kids. It’s not about his success, it’s about the kids’ success, which in this day and age, I find really refreshing.

“When he’s pushing them, he’s trying to make them not just better athletes, but more disciplined humans, and we need more of that in this world. It’s really a good fit.”

 Benjamin Rosenberg can be reached at brosenberg@vnews.com or 603-727-3302.

CORRECTION: Former Sharon Academy boys basketball coach Dave Brown started a part-time job after the 2021-22 season. A previous version of this story misstated Brown’s employment status while coaching the team.

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