BURLINGTON - Todd Kozak has been waiting for a long time to be a head coach and he is getting his chance at Lewis Mills High School this winter.
Kozak takes over the spartans program for Fran Amara after spending the last two season's as the JV coach/varsity assistant at Mills. From Newington to Farmington to Lewis Mills, Kozak has spent 16 seasons as an assistant basketball coach and is ready to take the reigns of his own program.
"I am excited. I started as an assistant at Newington when I was 19-years-old," Kozak said. "I wasn't much older than some of the kids I was coaching then and now my assistant kids me that I am a head coach about 20 years in the making."
The last two seasons Kozak has seen the program at Lewis Mills begin a rebuilding process. His first season in Burlington, the Spartans won just two games. Last season Mills went up to Gilbert on the final day of the regular season and stunned the Yellowjackets to earn a state tournament berth.
Now Kozak is in charge and is looking to build off of last season's success.
"When you are an assistant you always want to be the head guy," Kozak said. "Now we want to build on last season. Getting to the state tournament was a big deal. We won a play-in game and then we got to play Career and see what is out there in Class M, where we had to work to get better."
Getting better will start with a group of six seniors that Kozak says have helped set the tone in the offseason. Both the coach and players were familiar with each other but there still was an element of change with Kozak becoming the head coach despite coming from within the program.
"The experience of being here the last two years has helped because we are familiar with each other," Kozak said. "But there are some differences and the kids are getting used to it. To have the six seniors buying into what we are trying to do as a program is huge because the younger kids have fallen in line."
Leading the way in Kozak's first season will be Ben Borkowski, Jeremy Dunn and Dave Neuhausser. At nearly 6-4, Borkowski is going to present some matchup problems for guards throughout the Berkshire League while Dunn and Neuhausser give the Spartans and inside-outside combination of post players.
Mills lost seven seniors from last season's playoff team and of the six on this year's team, three have limited varsity experience leaving it up to Borkowski, Dunn and Neuhausser to lead the way as the rest of the spartans get up to speed.
"Ben is going to give us some mismatches at the point guard spot as far as his height goes and Jeremy was second-team all-league last season and Dave gives us a shooter from the post." Kozak said. "Our other seniors need to make that adjustment to the varsity level but they all have a tremendous work ethic and an ability to adapt."
Speaking of adapting, Kozak will adapt his philosophies to the strength of his team and according to matchups. You won't see the Spartans playing strictly man or strictly zone defense this season but you will see them change things up and look to push the ball on offense when the opportunity presents itself.
Some of what you will see comes from Kozak's preeration before the season even started. Think he was ready to take over his own team - consider that Kozak went to 14 college practices to observe including some practices of the defending national champion UConn Huskies.
"It's good to see some different philosophies and talk to different coaches about how they approach things," Kozak said. "I even got a couple drills from a visit to UConn. all you have to tell the guys is that hey, if it's good enough for the national champs it's good enough for Lewis Mills."
Not that Kozak has had to tell his team much other than what he wants them to run on the floor. The Spartans have started the season ready to work and appear intent on contuning the progress they showed last season.
"We had two wins, then nine, now we want to get over .500 and move up into that upper half of the Berkshire League," Kozak said. "In talking to the seniors about goals they all want to improve and they all want to win. The whole team is like that and they work. We've had about seven, eight practices so far and we havn't had a bad one yet."
Lewis Mills opens the 2011-12 season with a home game against Wamogo on Dec. 14 and Kozak expects Northwestern, Gilbert and Nonnewaug to be very good teams in the BL this season.