Back in September, the Corkscrew Middle School Hawks were looking at another winless basketball season — this time without a coach. But when Collier County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) deputies in Golden Gate Estates learned the position was vacant, they took an opportunityto bond with students in their district, teaching them how to win both on the court and in life.
The team, which hadn’t won a single game in at least three years, went on to win three out of four regular season games before making it to the playoffs.
“I know for a fact we made a difference in some of these kids’ lives and most likely have changed their perception of cops,” said Cpl. Johnny Cisnero, who along with Cpl. Matt Vaill and a mutual friend, spent three weeknights and every Saturday for six months coaching the team of 14 boys at the middle school.
Both Cpls. Cisnero and Vaill work in District 4, Golden Gate Estates, and learned that the kids needed a coach through the school’s Youth Relations Deputy. Both deputies had experience coaching and playing basketball; Cpl.Vaill actually once coached at Naples High School.
Before the season, the deputies got to know a few of the players at a summer camp event CCSO hosts each year. Kids with free time in the summer come to open gyms hosted throughout the county hosted by CCSO deputies. Many of those students remembered the deputies when they came for tryouts for the school following Hurricane Irma.
A total of 72 students tried out for the team, but only 13 made the cut. A 14th student was kept on to keep stats for the team.
“He showed a lot of heart,” Cpl. Cisnero said.
The two deputies and their friend, Rob Frontiero, made sure to come to practice at least three times a week. Sometimes, they were late following a long shift at work.
“I’d come there in my uniform and they’d say, ‘Hey Coach, you made it!’” Cpl. Cisnero said. “It was a good feeling going in there in uniform.”
The students learned quickly, and the deputies were sure to emphasize that their behavior in school was linked to playing time. The students were expected to represent their team and school well.
“They were very focused and determined to do good,” Cpl. Vaill said. “They really bought into the whole system. They really wanted to do better and improve the school record.”
The students said they were proud to represent their school with a winning record.
“The experience of having two deputies coach me was great,” said Kenny, one of the players. “I didn’t know that cops could play ball like they did.”
His teammate, Juni, agreed. “It was an honor,” he said.
Already, there is talk of coaching again next year. Both Cpls. Vaill and Cisnero said they’d be more than willing to volunteer. “For me it’s like one of the greatest feelings,” Cpl. Cisnero said. “There’s no medal, there’s no badge. It’s just looking at these kids.”