The last two years have been a whirlwind for coach Tony Cordani and the Hopedale boys basketball program.
At the end of the 2019-2020 season, Cordani had led his Blue Raiders to a Division 4 state championship berth against Abington only for it to be canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Still, Hopedale came away as co-state champions, and is the last program to win a Division IV boys basketball Central sectional title.
Cordani followed that campaign with a 7-5 record during the COVID-shortened season and was recently named the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) Boys Basketball Coach of the Year.
“It’s certainly a surprise and definitely an honor,” Cordani said. “It was certainly a nice award.”
Also among the MIAA Coach of the Year honorees from the Daily News area for the 2020-21 school year were Marlborough’s Sean Mahoney (football), Franklin’s Paula Lupien (girls gymnastics), Milford’s Derek Rose (indoor boys and track and field) and Natick’s Nick DiAntonio (Unified track and field).
As for Cordani, for those who know him best, that recognition does not come as a surprise.
“We were extremely delighted that he was named,” Hopedale athletics director Stephanie Ridolfi said. “He has put the heart and soul into this program and to see him get honored like that is something that is a feather in his cap and is well-deserved.”
“I was very impressed, but honestly wasn’t surprised,” senior Steve Marchionni said. “There is a lot that he did behind the scenes that isn’t necessarily basketball-related.”
All coaches throughout Massachusetts had to make adjustments last season due to COVID-19. But Cordani’s out-of-the-box approach and thinking, bringing in guest speakers such as former players on Zoom calls helped the Blue Raiders become better mentally according to Marchionni.
“Last year being what it was with COVID, there wasn’t a lot that we could do,” Marchionni said. “He would find ways, would join a live stream every week that basically told us, that we will only get out what we put in and we would just find ways to improve mentally, since we couldn’t always improve physically together.”
With no postseason last year, Cordani was just glad to be playing basketball again.
“Last year it was just great to play I thought,” Cordani said. “The fact that we were able to get the season in was great. The kids got to get into the gym and practice every day and get together.
“More than anything else it was just great to be with the kids and be in the gym.”
What makes Cordani such a good coach is his ability change his team’s style of play to fit the strengths and weaknesses of his team, says Marchionni.
“It’s visible to see how much time he puts in,” Marchionni said. “He has plays that fit our personnel and they change every year. First day I could tell, over the summer, not during basketball season, he’s drawing up plays and looking up different drills and ways to have our personnel effective because it changes from year to year.”
Now Cordani looks to put the well-deserved award in his back pocket and focus on this upcoming season. His Blue Raiders return six seniors from the 2020-21 team and one junior.
Those seniors include Marchionni, Jack Liberatore (younger brother of former Hopedale star Dan Liberatore), Ollie Radcliffe, Everett Haba, Ollie Gingras and Liam Murphy.
Cody Dicken is the lone returning junior.
“It’s a little early, but I think we should be relatively competitive,” Cordani said.
When Hopedale steps onto Draper Gym floor December 17 against Bethany Christian, it will mark its first time in front of fans since March 2020. The Blue Raiders plan to be ready.
“I think it helped prepare everyone mentally,” said Marchionni of last season. “A lot of guys still haven’t had that true varsity experience yet … It will be interesting to see us play to our full potential in front of fans.
“Fans bring energy but at the same time, we don’t (necessarily) need them to win a game as long as we play for each other.”