Jeff Ellis, who celebrated his 38th birthday yesterday, was 24 years old when it was suggested that he become Southold High School’s boys varsity basketball coach. Gene Maiorana had retired after 20 years in charge of the First Settlers, and a new coach was needed. Ellis was reticent about taking on a varsity job at such a young age, but an agreement was reached. Kevin Leavay, who himself retired the following year, agreed to coach the team for the 1998-99 season, helping Ellis learn the ropes as an untenured assistant coach before taking over the reigns himself the next season.
And then a funny thing happened: Ellis, a former soccer player for Patchogue-Medford High School and Cortland State, became a basketball guy, falling in love with the sport.
“This was a position I honestly thought I’d never leave,” Ellis told The Suffolk Times. “I thought I would have it until I retired.”
Ellis couldn’t have imagined how his association with the team would end.
When Southold rolls out the basketballs for its first preseason practice in mid-November, it will do so with a new coach. Phil Reed, who had been Southold’s junior varsity coach for the past six seasons, has been appointed the varsity team’s new coach, replacing Ellis. Ellis, who may have been the most successful coach in team history, was not reappointed after 14 seasons in charge. Ellis said he had applied for the post before withdrawing his name from consideration. He did not wish to say why he walked away.
Ellis surely made his mark on Southold basketball. During his time as coach, the First Settlers went 154-124 (.554). They reached the playoffs in 11 of his 14 seasons, won two Suffolk County championships and reached the New York State Class C semifinals.
Ellis coached Southold to its first Suffolk and Long Island championships in at least 57 years in the 2004-5 season. More history followed. The following season, with a splendid backcourt of Seamus Long and Sean O’Hara, Ellis guided the First Settlers to the New York State final four for the first time in team history. Southold enjoyed another memorable season in 2009-10, when it went undefeated during the regular season, winning all 18 games.
“When you get good players and kids that really want to work hard, it makes coaching that much easier,” said Ellis, who figures he has coached close to 100 players.
Ellis said he is proud of his record and what the team accomplished under his watch. “Looking back, I’m proud that we put Southold basketball back on the map,” he said.
Basketball became a labor of love for Ellis, who still runs a summer league. He also had Southold teams playing in spring and fall leagues, as well as having overseen countless open gym sessions and individual workouts.
“I loved practice,” Ellis said. “I really like putting in those two hours every single day and just getting game ready.”
Last season was a difficult one for Ellis and his team. Southold finished with a 6-12 record in a season that was marked by controversy. During the season, the team’s best player, Winston Wilcenski, was kicked off the squad before being reinstated without public explanation. Wilcenski missed four games of his senior season.
The Southold athletic director, Joe Braico, said he would not discuss the circumstances surrounding the coaching change. “I would prefer that we look forward instead of looking back at this moment,” he said in an interview last Thursday.
Braico said Reed was the top choice as Ellis’ successor. Reed had served as a varsity assistant coach to Ellis for one season before becoming the junior varsity coach. He was also an assistant coach for the Southold girls’ varsity basketball team last season.
Reed did not return phone messages prior to the deadline.
“Phil, I think, has done an excellent job in the past as our J.V. coach,” Braico said. “I think he does a great job with practices. I think he does a great job with the student/athletes as well, and we’re very excited to have him as our varsity coach this year.”
Reed’s familiarity with the program was seen as a plus. “He does know the situation, he does know the kids, he does know the culture here at Southold,” Braico said, “so I think the transition is going to be a good one.”
Coaching a varsity team is demanding and has its own special challenges.
“It’s tough, I think, for someone like me who’s a disciplinarian coach,” Ellis said. “I demand a lot out of my kids. We’re at a time when you can’t discipline too much. You get backlash if you discipline too much.”
Ellis, who has a wife and two young children, said he thinks he will eventually return to coaching. He said he has already been offered three assistant coach positions and five or six junior varsity jobs.
“If I want to go back into it, I’ll go back into it,” he said. “I think eventually I will. I think we decided as a family, I’m going to take this season off.”
“I hope that all these kids I’ve been around for so long, I hope that I’ve made them better adults, and only they could answer that,” he continued. “I loved it. I really did. You got to move on.”