Maine Basketball Hall of Fame coach John Donato is used to winning, so he thought four years ago he could revive an Orono High School girls basketball program that had been struggling.
The 74-year-old admitted he hasn’t been able to make the strides he had hoped to make, so he has decided to move on.
“I haven’t been able to move the program in the right direction, so it is time to step down,” Donato said.
The Red Riots posted a 16-52 record in Donato’s four seasons. They lost in the Class B North prelims in 2018 and 2019, going 5-14 each year, and failing to qualify after a 2-16 campaign during 2019-20.
Orono went 4-8 this season in their local pod, including a playoff loss to Hermon.
Donato had replaced Nick Winchester, who posted a 10-27 mark in two seasons at Orono before moving on to Hampden Academy, where he has led the Broncos to three straight Class A North girls titles.
Donato said he enjoyed his players and praised Orono High athletic administrator Mike Archer and the administration for their support.
Orono was the sixth stop in a storied girls basketball career during which he has posted a 563-271 career record (.675) with 11 regional titles and five state championships.
Donato’s team at Lawrence High in Fairfield won the state Class A championship in 2015 and lost 58-57 to York in the 2016 state final.
He would like to continue coaching but said it has to be the right fit.
“[I have] never been in this situation. I’ve never lost this many games before,” Donato said.
“I’ve always been successful. It’s discouraging for the kids and discouraging for the coach,” he said. “The losses were taking a physical toll on me.”
Donato cited several reasons behind the program’s struggles, starting with the fact it is one of the smallest high schools in Class B. Orono also offers a number of other winter sports.
There were only 15 players between the varsity and JV programs this season. Only one played AAU basketball and most of them were more prolific in another sport and put more time and effort into that.
Donato said the feeder system is extremely thin and said he tried to start a summer basketball camp for youngsters. He was forced to cancel because of a lack of interest.
He had built other programs from the ground up, even after some early struggles.
“I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel at Orono. They need to hire somebody with energy to come in and rejuvenate the program,” he said.
Donato, a member of the Middleborough High School Hall of Fame in Massachusetts, played baseball and basketball at the former Ricker College in Houlton. He embarked on his coaching career at Houlton High School, where he directed the Shiretowner girls to nine regional championships and four state titles in 18 seasons.
He spent nine years at Messalonskee High in Oakland and five at Mount View in Thorndike, one at Hall-Dale of Farmingdale and seven at Lawrence before taking the Orono job.