Sacred Heart CYO coach nominated for Knicks award

You don’t necessarily have to win many games to feel like a winner — just ask the Eagles girls basketball team that competes in the Sacred Heart Church CYO program in Cutchogue.

The players already feel they are winners, thanks to coach Kelly Koundourakis, who was named a finalist for Jr. Knicks Coach of the Year.

Coach K, as she is known by some players, has made practices fun, while improving their skills.

Every member of the team, mostly fifth- and sixth-graders from the Cutchogue East Elementary School, said that they enjoy practices. To many athletes, training can be drudgery.

Not with the Eagles.

“She’s the best. She’s super funny,” sixth-grader Rhyan Norris said. “She’s great at teaching sports. She always makes it fun.”

That seemed to be everyone’s sentiment.

“She’s really good at teaching us basketball and really getting the best out of us,” sixth-grader Gretchen Ocker said.

Added sixth-grader Emerson Doroski: “She’s really the reason why I love basketball.”

That type of energy and attitude can work both ways.

“My husband tells me every time we come to practice, ‘I don’t know why you do it,’ “ Koundourakis said. “I think that they have been more of a gift to me than I have been to them.”

Koundourakis, 45, and husband Nick, who operate Amiantos Environmental Engineers, a consulting firm, moved from Astoria, Queens, to Mattituck along with daughter Alexandra and son Yani, seeking a better family environment.

Two years ago, Koundourakis brought Alexandra to her first practice. She asked the coach if he needed help.

“He goes, ‘You want your own team?’ I said, ‘Well, I guess if you need the help.’ I took the fifth- and sixth-grade girls last year,” she said.

Coach K wanted to make practice as enjoyable as possible. At a recent Cutchogue East practice, players went through various drills, including a three-person weave and dribbling the ball with one hand while holding a pail in the other. There were shooting drills as well.

“I tell them that I don’t care what the score says. I don’t want them to even look at the score,” she said. “Last year was the first time some of the girls grabbed a basketball. They had no idea about even dribbling. They’ve come a very long way. They’re playing great. They’re playing like a team. My biggest goal for them is to want to keep playing.”

Koundourakis can offer constructive criticism without singling out anyone.

“She’s hard on us but not in a bad way,” sixth-grader Eva Marino said. “She makes us better.”

And there are sportsmanship lessons.

“When someone makes a shot, they’re all giving high fives,” said Mia Ranghelli, a sixth-grader at the Pulaski Street Elementary School in Riverhead. “If you miss a shot, they’re all trying to make us feel better.”

Coach K also treats her daughter like any other player, which can be a fine balancing act.

“I love it so much because not only am I playing basketball, I love connecting with my mom,” said Alexandra. “I want them to know that I’m the coach’s kid … and not getting special treatment.”

Off the court, the team has bonded as well. Koundourakis paid out of her pocket recently for the team to see the Taylor Swift movie, “The Eras Tour.”

“We always have those memories, which we all love,” sixth-grader Paityn Montgomery said.

Parents and grandparents could not help but notice the children’s enthusiasm and nominated Koundourakis for the Jr. Knicks award.

“They develop great enthusiasm for the sport,” Leann Marino, the grandmother of fifth-grader Daya Tellez and Eva Marino. “They’ll even go out and play two and a half hours by themselves at home and make some progress.”

“My two girls have changed and grown as athletes and as people under Coach K,” Liz Doroski said of daughters Emerson and fifth-grader Jane Doroski. “They have shown a different side of themselves.”

Other members of the team include sixth-graders Isabella Fiore and Maddie Rosso and fourth-grader Valencia Jander.

Koundourakis did not win the award. The honor went instead to Mike Simmel of Mahwah, N.J., founder of Bounce Out the Stigma camps. Those camps have created a positive basketball environment for children with autism spectrum disorders, epilepsy, learning disabilities and other physical and emotional challenges.

“He is well worthy of it,” she said. “He’s been coaching for over 35 years. He has devoted his whole life to this. I’m just starting out. It was just an honor to stand next to him.

“They were disappointed that I didn’t win,” she said, “but after I told them who won and everything that he’s put into basketball in his life, they understood. I’ve taught them over the last two years: It’s not about whether you win or lose, it’s how much you give of yourself in whatever you do.”

Winning, after all, can be a matter of perspective.

“Even though she didn’t win, she still won for us because she’s the best coach ever,” Jander said.