PINE RIVER -- He may not be the prototypical coach but Tom Lupella of Pine River-Backus has proven to be one of the most successful coaches in the area.
He isn't into Zen knowledge like Phil Jackson and you'll never see him throw a chair onto the court but Lupella has a style that was successful for the PR-B girls' basketball and volleyball teams this fall and winter.
The PR-B science teacher just finished his third year as a girls' basketball coach. He's also coached volleyball for 15 years. Although he's never made it to the state tournament, this year he was close twice.
Lupella coached the PR-B girls' basketball team to a 22-5 record and an appearance in the Section 7AA title game. The Tigers lost to Proctor in the final but Lupella was honored as section coach of the year.
After the game Lupella said he would give the award up in a second to have won the game. He was happy with the award, but was disappointed for his players.
"The glory I get out of it is not as important as the kids'," said Lupella. "It's a life-long memory for them. I'm about done with my career. I'm very much at peace with my life and career. It's not as important to me as it is for the kids accomplishing something.
"It's nice but the pain of the kids means a whole lot more than an award like that."
In his career Lupella has coached the Tigers to a 51-17 record in basketball. This season's highlights included winning the Park Region Conference with an 8-0 record and finally defeating the long-time nemesis Pequot Lakes Patriots 52-44 on Jan. 30.
"He has a genuine respect for his athletes," Pequot Lakes coach Bill Larson said of his counterpart. "They do a lot of talking outside of practice. He's got some definite coaching styles offensively. Defensively, he's willing to change and you'll see Tom sitting in your stands at least two times out of the year because he will change defensively.
"This day in basketball you see a lot of turnover and that's why the level of play has gone down. He's built a program because of the hard work he puts in."
Lupella coached the Tigers on runs of nine and eight straight victories. Despite the lower than expected second seed in the West Subsection, the Tigers cruised through the bracket like they were the favorites. In the first round they ended the Crosby-Ironton Rangers' season. Then they ended the seasons of Chisholm and Esko.
The Tigers' trail eventually stopped in the section final, thanks to the Proctor Rails. Yet, it was the first time Lupella had reached this point in basketball.
"We tried to take each athlete and work with them to add another facet to their game," said Lupella. "We took each girl and developed something to get us to a point where we could contend in the section.
"A lot of the kids developed confidence over the three years but the most important thing was the chemistry and the fact they got along so well.
"The one thing about our girls, they never fought. They supported each other so well and that's critical."
What makes the Tigers and Lupella's season that much greater is the fact they were nearly in the same location three months ago in the Section 7AA volleyball semifinals. In that match the Tigers were once again unable to get past the hump, losing to Deer River.
Last year they made it to the volleyball finals but lost to Mesabi East.
The Tigers finished the volleyball season with a 23-5 record, giving Lupella a career record of 105-29. PR-B has won the Park Region Conference the last two years.
After all these accomplishments, Lupella is ending his tenure as girls' basketball coach.
"I can't do basketball justice by coaching both sports," Lupella said. "I started volleyball from scratch. We started the program all over again because we were down."
Lupella hasn't officially resigned. When he does he will recommend Patrick Deegan, who coached at Paynesville and was an assistant at Eden Valley-Watkins. Deegan is the first-year boys' track and field coach at PR-B this spring.
"My goal is not to leave the program high and dry," Lupella said. "We lose two starters but we have a good group coming back. It's been very enjoyable. I've had great kids. I just owe it to the kids to give it to a person who's going to give it some time.
"The more time you put into the kids and the sport the more the kids get out of it. That's shown in volleyball. We've been able to maintain some success."
Lupella has already committed to do in-state and out-of-state volleyball camps this summer.
"I'm happy for him and his girls," said Larson. "They put a lot of time in to get as far as they did. I'll miss having him around."
His players will miss him too. Junior post player Meg Tabaka is sad that he won't be back next year but she understands.
"He's ready to stop," said Tabaka. "He likes coaching volleyball. We're going miss him. He's always there after practice. He's really positive. He's really there to help."
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.