LEE -- Gary Wellington got on the bus two years ago and told his Lee girls basketball team this was it.
The coach was stepping down. He wanted to spend more time with his family. After winning a state title in 2010 and making it back to the final in 2011, he was done.
"We were like, ‘No! You just came. We just came. Finish out with us,' " said Wildcats senior Eileen Dooley.
"I feel like we definitely threatened him a little," said fellow senior Stephanie Young with a smile. "But it's fine because he loves us."
Whatever those kids said to Wellington, 61, the coach stayed on for another trip to Worcester's DCU Center on Saturday. Lee lost 60-33 to Archbishop Williams in Wellington's third state final appearance, leaving him with a title and more than 100 wins in five years.
It's not a bad resume and would be unmatched at most schools. But this is Lee, where Wellington followed in the footsteps of his friend, Tom Cinella, who retired in 2008 with 407 wins. Cinella still comes to just about every game and both men will tell you they miss coaching together.
"When you follow someone like Coach Cinella, you're hoping you can just do a small portion of what he was able to do," Wellington said. "I knew I could do the job. I had a system I wanted to run. It's a matter of getting everyone to play that style."
Cinella tells a story about Wellington before the future coach began his four-decade career. It was the mid-1960s when Cinella, then the Lee boys junior varsity coach, first saw Wellington at tryouts with varsity coach Dick Salinetti.
"This freshman is diving for loose balls, head first into the bleachers," Cinella said. "I said ‘Dick, that kid over there is going to kill himself.' He was tough."
And Wellington's teams played that way. Tenacious defense was Wellington's specialty dating back to his playing days. He knew how to hold his opponents down.
"I learned that as a kid," he said. "When you're not 6-foot-4, you have to do different things. ... I was the defensive stopper. I'd always take the best offensive player, let the shooters get a break."
Longtime Lee assistant Jim Feeley said his boss had a way to break things down so every player could understand those different roles. He communicated well and always had an open door to his office as facilities director at the school, where he will remain.
More importantly, the coach had a skill for making his players play as hard as they could.
"It's just Gig," Dooley said. "You always want to do good for him because he's happy when you do good. He just wants to see you thrive and succeed. When you don't, when you lose, you can see he's sad, too, because he knows how good we can play."
Wellington trusts his players on the floor. He's not a yeller on the sideline but lets them make their own decisions. It was all about preparing them to make good, judgement calls in the toughest environments.
He'd reel in players when necessary. Young said he'd let her know when she was trying to do too much. But the coach said he figured the players' jobs were tough enough without a sideline screamer.
"I feel like he understands what every player's role is on the team," she said. "[He] just makes sure we do it to our potential so we thrive at the end of the day."
When it was all over on Saturday, Wellington kept the limelight on his players. Pausing to reflect on his tenure, he didn't mention wins or titles, just those kids that wouldn't let him leave.
"I'm very proud of those kids," Wellington said. "They worked very hard to get here. You can see, they're all 5-foot-whatever, except for Steph who's 5-foot-9, 5-foot-10 maybe. I'd keep those kids any day. There's big heart on those kids. They don't know how to quit."