One victory away Sokaitis led NASC to NCAA D-III Elite Eight
Thirty-one years ago, Berkshire County basketball fans were paying attention to a Division III college basketball team that was endeavoring to make the first Final Four in school history.
It wasn't Williams College, as that school did not make its first NCAA tournament appearance until 1994. It was, in fact, the school we now call the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.
The head coach of that team was Al Sokaitis. Sokaitis, who has coached teams across the country and even in Africa, still looks back on his three years at the former North Adams State College fondly.
"I have not been in North Adams, except for a couple of years ago when they inducted [the 1989-90 men's basketball team] into the Hall of Fame," he said. "Almost everybody was there. Phil [Bledsoe] and Bernard [Alexander] weren't there, but I talked to them on the phone. It was such a great feeling being around those guys. They're winners.
"I could be the jockey on one heck of a horse."
Sokaitis, 68, is home in Connecticut after being let go as the men's basketball coach at Division II Post University in 2016, (the first time he had not left a job on his own).
His career includes coaching at the high school level before moving onto colleges. In addition to North Adams, Sokaitis coached at Southern Maine, Alaska Fairbanks and what is now Western Colorado, before heading to Post in 2010.
"I was an assistant at the University of Washington [for one year]," Sokaitis said. "The [North Adams] job opened up. The year I spent there, I loved it. I loved the atmosphere and everything else. I heard about it, did a phone interview, came out for an in-person interview, and they offered me the job."
At Washington, Sokaitis was on the staff of Andy Russo. Russo, who spent four seasons at UW, had previously been the head coach at Louisiana Tech, where he coached Karl Malone.
Sokaitis replaced John Quattrochi, who had spent two years at North Adams State, going 20-6 in his final season.
The North Adams job was interesting to Sokaitis for many reasons. Two of them were Phil Bledsoe and Bernard Alexander. Bledsoe is in the MCLA Athletics Hall of Fame, along with the 1989-90 team that was four points away from reaching the NCAA Division III Final Four. But Bledsoe and Alexander were, like Sokaitis, former members of the U.S. Army back in school to seek degrees.
"That probably was the best fit of them all. I kind of knew what they were going through," the former coach said.
"It wasn't just Phil and Bernard," Sokaitis said. "We had a cast of guys with Tony Paranto and [Andre Washington], who were great kids and good players, really great players. It was a chemistry thing. I don't think there were a lot of egos on the team. It was all about getting better. It was fun.
"It was a wonderful ride."
It was, in fact, a ride that began in 1988 and 1989. In 1988, North Adams — known then as the Mohawks — lost to UMass-Dartmouth 91-75 in the first round of the NCAA Division III tournament, and then lost to Southern Maine 84-60 in the regional's third-place game. Then in 1989, North Adams had a first-round bye, but lost again to Southern Maine, this time 88-80. Sokaitis' team did come back and beat Salem State 112-78 in the regional consolation game.
In each of those preceding two seasons, North Adams State had shared MASCAC title honors with rival Salem State. But in the 1989-90 season, North Adams not only won the regular-season title, but won the first-ever MASCAC Tournament crown.
"It was a stepping stone. Winning breeds winning," Sokaitis said. "It sets an atmosphere of 'this is what we do. This is how we play.' Winning that championship meant a lot. We had a great rivalry with Salem State those three years, and Jimmy Todd is a lifelong friend of mine, who was the coach then. That set the tone, and we just went from there."
After claiming the MASCAC tourney title, it was right off to the second round of the NCAA dance, where the Mohawks met with a familiar foe.
Southern Maine, which beat NASC in 1988 and 1989, had reached the second round of the tournament after beating Western New England 74-52.
It was off to Maine for a game against the Huskies. Sokaitis' team beat Southern Maine 88-79. Ironically, Sokaitis went to Southern Maine the following offseason, after Bob Brown took the Boston University job. Bob Brown's son Brett, by the way, is the current head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers.
North Adams then went to Albany, N.Y., where the University at Albany — then a Division III team — hosted the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games. Joining the Mohawks and Albany were the University of Rochester and UMass-Dartmouth.
After beating Albany 69-66, North Adams was slated to play a Rochester team that beat UMass-Dartmouth. In a defensive struggle, Rochester edged the Mohawks 50-47.
"We knew they were very good. They had an outstanding big man and an outstanding guard," Sokaitis said. "We talked about, if you look at shooting percentages [in the tournament] are normally down. Can you defend? Can you make three stops in a row? We didn't shoot the ball well that game, and I think a lot of it had to do with fatigue and tired legs. But we played very good defense, and it kept us in the game."
The Rochester team that beat Sokaitis' Mohawks went on to win the NCAA Division III championship that year.
When Sokaitis left for Southern Maine, Washingtonian Tim Kelly was brought in to coach at North Adams. Kelly lasted three years, went back to Washington state and became a successful high school coach. Kelly is in the Washington State Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame.
That North Adams State team was not the only Hall of Fame squad Sokaitis coached. His 2002 Alaska-Fairbanks team was inducted into the Alaska-Fairbanks and Alaska Sports Halls of Fame for going 20-8, making the NCAA Division II tournament and winning the BP Top of the World Classic. To win that tournament, Sokaitis' team had to beat Division I teams Wisconsin-Green Bay, Nebraska and Weber State.
Sokaitis and his wife Terri still live in Connecticut. They have three children. Sam is a musician in Anchorage. His older son Charlie is a TV news anchor in Anchorage, and used to be a television sportscaster in Green Bay, Wisc. Sokaitis' daughter Amy just finished her sixth season as the head women's basketball coach at Division III Lebanon Valley College, a small school located eight miles from Hershey, Pa., and 28 miles from the state capital of Harrisburg.
"Yes. Yes I did," Sokaitis said with a laugh, when he was asked if he tried to dissuade his youngest from coaching.
Amy Sokaitis played at Western Colorado (then Western State), and was an assistant coach at Division I Yale and Division II Southern Connecticut, before taking the head coaching job at Lebanon Valley. She is 88-75 in six seasons, and was 9-16 this past season, her first losing campaign as a head coach.
"You're at the mercy of so many things today," he said. "Between parents, athletic directors, schools, etc., there are a lot of things out of your control. But I told her, not only would she be happier, but her mom and I would be happy because we stress over every game. It feels like we're coaching every game.
"I'm really happy for her. She loves it. They had a bad year this year, but until then, they had five winning years and won the ECAC's one year. She's been good."
So while Amy Sokaitis is busy coaching, her father hasn't since the end of the 2015-16 season. Would he come back to a bench?
"I would, if it was the right job," Sokaitis said. "It would have to be the right job. I've spent the last three years doing clinics all over the world. I've coached Tanzania's national team, both the men and the women, in 2014-15. I went to China and worked with national team players. I go to Alaska for two months a year, doing clinics in native villages."
When not involved in basketball, Sokaitis said he had been involved with the Red Cross, helping manage shelters at disaster sites.
"I stay busy, but if the right thing came along, I would take it," he said. "I still can play and have a lot of energy, so why not?"
Howard Herman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.
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