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After 25 years, Farmington basketball coach Duane Witter steps away

Farmington High head coach Duane Witter talks to his team at the 2019 CIAC Division III championship game at the Mohegan Sun Arena. FHS beat Amistad of New Haven, 55-25. (Gerry deSimas, Jr./Collinsville Press)

Valley Press Staff Writer

FARMINGTON, April 19, 2024 — To think that Duane Witter’s 27-year career coaching basketball at Farmington High began on a (sort of) lost bet.

In the late 1990s, Witter, then a teacher at Irving A. Robbins Middle School, was working at a basketball camp at Miss Porter’s School when then-FHS head coach Mark Noon – a former All-American at the University of Hartford – was talking to the kids about the dangers of gambling.

“[Noon] said, ‘You shouldn’t gamble because you never know what’s going to happen,’” Witter said in a recent telephone interview. “And he said, ‘Who wants to bet I can make this half court shot? Every kid raised their hand. He took all bets, one was for $10, one kid said a case of orange soda, another said $1 million. He shot the shot from half court and swished it.”

Noon told the kids, “You owe me,” according to Witter, adding that Noon admonished the kids to never gamble.

“Then he asks, ‘Who wants double or nothing?” Witter said. “All the kids raised their hands again. He walked over to the bleachers [where Witter was sitting] and says … ‘If I make this half court shot you have to be my JV coach next year.’

“He turns around, he walks to half court at Miss Porter’s and he turns around backwards, he throws the ball backwards over his head and it banks in. ‘You owe me two cases of orange soda, you owe me $20, you owe me $2 million and Coach Witter, you’re going to be my assistant coach next year.’

“That’s how I got started in coaching.”

Witter has seemingly hundreds of stories like that one. But the Farmington stories, at least for now, have come to an end. The 27-year adventure, including 25 as head coach at Farmington High, have come to an end, as Witter announced that he is stepping away — though not necessarily retiring – from coaching.

“It didn’t start out this way, but it became my identity,” Witter says. “I’m Coach Witter. Everybody knows me as Coach Witter. Stepping away from who I am was difficult. I think it is time for me to step away. It certainly was bittersweet. I am going to miss it. …

“My wife and I have taught in Farmington for 31 years, my wife is still a teacher in Farmington. We love Farmington. …  I’m at the point in my life where I think it’s time for me to do some other stuff. Basketball, for everybody else, it’s December to March, but for me it’s a year-round endeavor. I think about bball every day so I just want to be able to do some other things.”

Farmington High boys basketball coach Duane Witter has stepped down after 25 years on the FHS bench. (Gerry deSimas, Jr./Collinsville Press)

When he first took the job, he hoped to last 10 years and win 100 games. Twenty-five years, 345 wins and one 2019 Division III state championship later, Witter decided the time was right to step away.

“Last year as a teacher I decided I had a really good year,” he said. “I had really good relationships with students. The teaching and learning part was working really well, I was on a great team of teachers, I said, ‘Now I want to step away because I’m having a really good year.’ I don’t want to step away from teaching when I’m having a bad year.

“It was the same this year with coaching. It got to a point in the season where I said I think this is it. I want to feel good about stepping away from coaching.  This group of student athletes overachieved this year at Farmington High School. I feel good about what we did this year. We want to win a state championship, we want to keep winning. But all the things they accomplished this year. All the wins they had, beating Windsor for that first time at Windsor, that was a big win for Farmington High School and made me feel good about stepping away at this time.”

Farmington High basketball coach Duane Witter holds the net after the River Hawks cut down the nets after a win over Avon, the final regular season game in the gym. The gym, which built during an expansion of the school in 1982, will be taken down as part of renovations and the construction of a new Farmington High. (Gerry deSimas, Jr./Collinsville Press)

He’s loath to single out moments, players, assistants and parents out of fear of missing someone. But he did mention a few highlights, in addition to Noon serendipitously making him a staffer.

“I was able to work with a lot of talented young people,” he said. “Without them I wouldn’t have been able to last that long. When I first got started, it was a carousel of coaches before they named me varsity coach.”

There was the (2012) team that rallied together after 6-8 star Ben Pollack broke his leg before the state tournament. That team advanced to the (Class L) state semifinals before falling to a talented Northwest Catholic team.

“That team and what they accomplished, we played an epic quarterfinal game against a really good Branford team in our gym,” he said. “It was electric.”

There was the triple-overtime win over Avon in the 2013 Class L tournament when Farmington was a 27th seed and Avon was a No. 6 seed.

“It was a tremendous game,” he said. “It was packed. We were turning people away. It was loud, exciting.”

There was the first season, when he coached a kid named Michael O’Connor, who went on to star at Western New England University.

“I know his family well,” Witter said. “His brother I wound up coaching and he ended up being my assistant coach for 15 years. So that team my first season (1998-99), we won the Northwest Conference and ended up beating a good Plainville team, a Middletown team that had a couple of players who played at Central (Connecticut State) and we beat Northwest Catholic (in the Northwest Conference Tournament final). It was the first time Farmington beat Northwest Catholic for the championship in a close game. …

“If I don’t get to coach Michael O’Connor my first season, who knows? Maybe I’m one of those coaches that gets run out after one season. He got me started there and gave me a little credibility as a coach. That started the whole thing.”

There were the seasons coaching the Abromaitises, Tim and Jason. Tim, the younger brother, played at Notre Dame and is currently playing professionally overseas. Jason played at Yale.

There were Mark Noon’s sons, Preston and Spencer Noon, who were two dynamic players.

“They allowed me to sustain my coaching at Farmington High School,” he said. “If I didn’t have all these good players along the way, I’m not sure I would have won enough to satisfy everyone. I’m not sure I could have hung on. I hate to leave anybody out. There’s many others I could talk about.”

There was coaching his son, Trey, who, during his senior year, led Class LL in scoring. Trey now coaches at Trinity, the son now helping the father in some of the finer points of basketball.

There were the parents and assistant coaches who, Witter said, made him a better father and coach.

There were certainly bumps along the way. Witter battled leukemia after FHS won the state title in 2019, which forced him to take a sabbatical from teaching and coaching. He ultimately returned, enabling him to step away on his own terms.

There was, of course, that state championship in 2019 – a 55-45 win over Amistad of New Haven in the CIAC Division III final at the Mohegan Sun Arena. The seniors on that team, Witter said, won just five games as freshmen, seven as sophomores and 12 as juniors.

“My dream, I don’t talk about goals, I like to talk about destinations,” he said. “The ultimate destination for me was to get to the state championship game. Not to win it. … Just to get to the game. I soaked it all in. … Coaches call me now to ask about the state championship, to give some advice. One thing I learned, I had no idea. We had big crowds for state tournament games, for the Avon-Farmington game, but I had no idea I’d bring the whole community together. When I looked around the [Mohegan Sun] arena, I couldn’t believe how many faces I recognized. … It certainly was something I will never forget.”


Editor’s note: This story was first shared at the Valley Press on April 19, 2024.

Witter’s first season was 1998-99 when Farmington won their first and only Northwest Conference tournament title. He coached for 22 years until he took one year off during 2021 during the COVID-19 shortened season. He returned for three more seasons, concluding his career with the River Hawks in the 2023-24 campaign.  He had 17 winning seasons and led the squad to 22 CIAC state tournament berths.

The state championship team in 2019 won 23 games (23-4) the most in a single season in team history, became the first River Hawk team since 1939 to play in a state championship game and won the program’s first-ever championship. That 2019 team also shared the CCC West Patriot title with Glastonbury at 8-2 in the division, the program’s first conference title since winning the Northwest Conference in 1989.

Since 2009, the Collinsville Press has been providing award-winning coverage of sports and news in the Farmington Valley and across Connecticut.

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