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Mike DiMauro: And the 21-year-old shall lead them

Mar. 16—OLD LYME — Maybe the real stars of the show here are members of the hiring committee, who inspected 16 other candidates and ultimately chose this 21-year-old, perhaps summoning the words of Mark Twain: "Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter."

What the boys' basketball hiring committee did a few months back now in Old Lyme was pluck the young man who bleeds the bluest Old Lyme blue, the young man who was born in the 06371, educated there, played there and now will be the pied piper, leading the whole town Sunday to Mohegan Sun Arena, where the Wildcats play for the CIAC Division V state title.

Meet Brady Sheffield, 21, the head coach of the Old Lyme Wildcats, the school for which he was playing as late as 2020.

"Brady is young, but mature for his age. Even in high school he was," Old Lyme athletic director Hildie Heck was saying. "He bleeds Wildcat blue. No one cares more about that basketball team than he does. And don't forget he has unfinished business when it comes to a state championship. His senior year the boys wanted a banner more than anything and they missed out because of COVID. This run is redemption for him. He wants that banner."

But first, he wanted the job. He was coaching in Cromwell last year under John Pinone, the former South Catholic and Villanova great, who has turned the Panthers into a small school powerhouse. When the Old Lyme job opened, Brady Sheffield had his Tom Cruise Moment, recalling the line from "Risky Business" when Cruise, playing the character of Joel Goodsen, says, "sometimes, you just gotta say 'what the (heck), make your move.'"

"I thought I was about 50-50 to get it," Sheffield said Saturday after practice, the last full workout of the season for the Wildcats, who play Coventry on Sunday at 3 p.m. "I knew Miss Heck. She was the AD when I was here in high school. I knew she knew who I was. I also coached baseball here. So I knew that would help me. But obviously, I knew the age wasn't doing me any favors. But I wouldn't be able to sleep at night if I didn't go for it.

"I told myself not to get discouraged if you don't get it. It's experience going through the interview process. But when I got it, I was thrilled."

If you have experienced (endured?) the interview process, you understand how they unfold: As the curtain of your life gets pulled back, the metaphorical darts come at you like hailstones. It's hard enough for folks considerably older and more seasoned. So how does a 21-year-old articulate his feelings?

"I tried my best to remind them how much it meant to me as a player," Sheffield said. "Everyone on that committee would come to our games. I think they knew I'd do anything for the team and anything for the town. And from the second I graduated, I was trying to get on coaching staffs for basketball and baseball. I just wanted to be around here. I love the community and the school so much. I guess I'd tried to remind them I'm Old Lyme through and through. Born and raised here. Played here. A student here. And I'm not far removed from that."

And yet the wisdom belying his years suggests Sheffield is 47 miles removed from that. Example: In a time where coaches often show up at games with clothing more traditionally suited for the morning jog, Sheffield and his staff wear suits to games.

What follows is going to be a long quote from Sheffield. Please digest every word. (And it's OK to weep tears of joy.)

"Looking presentable is important," he said. "We make the boys wear shirts and ties in school on game days and shirts and ties to the games. We're representing our school and community. We as coaches would be hypocrites if we weren't doing that as well.

"We need to be good role models for the kids and to be professional about the way that we go about things. Look good, feel good, play good is always something I've believed in. Wearing the suit, I think, gives you a mental edge on game day. You're locked in, ready to go for the night. I grew up watching the NBA and college. The coaches were always in suits. And then when COVID happened, now they're all in sweat suits.

"Coach (Kirk) Kaczor (Sheffield's high school coach) always wore a shirt and tie. Last year in Cromwell, we all wore suits. I don't like showing up in a sweat suit. What we do is important. It's a job, like you're showing up to work. Looking good plays a part in it. And it gives your team a good image. It gives yourself a good image.

"I can't understand what kids wear to school now. Pajama pants? I guess I'm more of an old soul. Kids can wear what they want. But Crocs and pajama pants? I could never do it."

Sheffield, suit and all, found himself looking down to the other benches this season and seeing people who know what they're doing. Pinone. Frank Rossi at Morgan. Kevin Woods at Valley Regional. This was coaching at 7:00 now, not 5:30. Sheffield called it "surreal." But then, no more so that what the Wildcats will experience today.

Sheffield played in the finals at Mohegan for Old Lyme in 2019.

"It's going to be a lot to take in. You can't help but look up and be in awe," he said. "You're in an arena now, not in a gym like ours, where the walls are right behind the rim. And there's, you know, a 600-person capacity. This thing holds 10,000 people, there's the jumbotron, the music and the lights are bright. What I've kind of tried to tell them is to stay in the present moment and stay grounded. And just remember, whether we're in Mohegan Sun, or we're in our gym or down at the park, we're playing basketball. Go out there and execute."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro