BANGOR, Maine — Basketball is a common denominator for many athletes of all ages, but not everything involved in coaching the sport is the same at the college and high school levels.
Even one of the basics of conditioning, the wind sprint, has its differences — particularly in the distance run from end line to end line, something Ed Kohtala was reminded of during one of his first practices this fall at Bangor High School.
“The sprint time you might use with a college-level kid is 94 feet, but you have to adjust with the high school kids because the court is 10 feet shorter,” said Kohtala, who will make his formal debut as the Rams’ new boys varsity basketball coach at 7 p.m. Friday when Bangor hosts defending Eastern Maine Class A champion Hampden Academy at Red Berry Gymnasium.
“My times were a little short for some of the kids on their early sprints.”
It was a momentary blip in what Kohtala describes as an exciting transition back to the high school ranks after 15 years spent on college sidelines, the last three seasons as an assistant coach at the University of Maine.
In August, Kohtala replaced Roger Reed, who left the Bangor post in June after school officials asked him to choose between continuing his 27-year career as the Rams’ head coach or pursuing a seat in the Maine House of Representatives. Reed subsequently won election last month to represent District 23 (Hermon, Carmel, Etna and Stetson) in the House.
Kohtala was not hired to the Bangor post until after the summer basketball season had ended, leaving him without a chance to familiarize himself with his players until the start of preseason practices just before Thanksgiving.
Instead, the Vienna naive and 1981 graduate of the University of Maine — who was a high school teacher and coach for 15 years in Maine, Florida and Georgia before turning to the collegiate ranks in 1996 — focused initially on his return to the classroom as a math teacher at Bangor High School.
“I wanted to make sure that for someone like myself who was going to hold kids highly accountable for their academic performance and the way they conducted themselves in our hallways, I wanted to be certain to the best of my ability that they would hear good things about me as a teacher,” Kohtala said. “Earlier on in my career, when I was a high school teacher and a coach, teaching always came first.”
Kohtala said his transition back to a high school coaching environment has been eased in large part by of his previous work at that level.
“I just spent 15 years working at the college level, which was wonderful, but even in that setting my approach and personality was really set in my high school years,” said Kohtala. “I’ve always identified with high school coaches. I always felt like my approach was that of a high school coach.
“What I mean by that is interest in the whole kid, and that while basketball is important, it’s not an overbearing part of their lives. So the adjustment in some ways has felt very natural.”
Kohtala also appreciates the help of Bangor assistant coaches Joe Johnson, Mark Hackett and Lance Fenimore.
“It’s one thing to walk into a gym, watch some guys scrimmage and get a feel for who you feel like you could coach and who would fit in the way you like to play,” he said. “But all the other things, how things have been done, the traditions, and some insight into the kids who are here, all of those things have been invaluable. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration at all to say I don’t know how I could have done it without the assistance of those coaches.”
What Kohtala discovered during preseason is a basketball culture at Bangor that requires little change.
“These kids are used to hard work, they’re used to competing on the defensive end and they’re used to rebounding, so you’re not fighting any battles that way,” he said. “Of course, my terminology might be a little different, and we’ll get to the point where we’re all talking the same language. But when you’ve been well schooled and you’ve been well coached, the other things over time will take care of themselves.”
Kohtala inherits one of the younger Bangor teams of recent vintage with just one senior, Matt Cosgrove, who was on last season’s varsity roster.
But that relative inexperience changes nothing for Kohtala in the aspirations game.
“My expectations are high,” he said. “I think I have a pretty good feel for the culture of champions that’s grown up here but the seniors have lived it, they were here when the last championship happened [in 2011]. They may not have been on that team but they were here so they will set a tone, not even as importantly with how they play as far as passing and dribbling and shooting, but with their understanding of what the program means, what the approach is and what it means to be a Bangor Ram.”