In Farmington: ‘We Believe’ transcends the basketball court
By Ted Glanzer
FARMINGTON – In winter 2020, Duane Witter earned his 300th career victory as the coach of the Farmington High boys basketball team.
It may have taken 662 days, but Witter notched career victory No. 301 with a 71-50 home win over East Hartford on Dec. 20.
“It’ nice to get a win,” Witter said. “The last time I coached in this gym was my 300th win. We celebrated and it was great. We had won 20 in a row at home. Then COVID hit and there was no state tournament; then I had to take a year off.”
Indeed, Witter, who had been diagnosed with leukemia in 2019, was in remission in February 2020 when the postseason was canceled due to the pandemic. (Farmington, which won the Division III state title the year before, had just finished the regular season at 15-5 and earned the No. 6 seed in the Division II state tournament.)
Months later, the leukemia returned, forcing Witter to take a year off from teaching and coaching. He returned to the sideline on Dec. 16 in a 63-51 loss to Northwest Catholic.
But the River Hawks, led by senior Nick Duncan (26 points, 15 rebounds), the lone holdover from the state championship team; Jordan Anthony (14 points, 13 in the second half, and seven assists) and Jared Young (15 points in the first half), were able to earn their first win of the year – and first win for Witter in nearly two calendar years – fighting off a scrappy, athletic East Hartford.
Farmington led 34-25 at the half, and clung to an eight-point lead late into the third quarter before Duncan had an emphatic dunk at the buzzer off a feed from Jahkai Veal to put the River Hawks up 10. The play energized Farmington, which piled on in the fourth quarter, giving the team and Witter a satisfying victory.
“Coming back last Thursday it was nice to get reacquainted with everyone,” Witter said. “I called it a reunion. We had the parents, fans and student athletes all together. The students hadn’t been able to come to the games because last year they weren’t allowed to. This is all new and different for them. Tonight, to get a W against a very athletic team and to play so efficiently in the second half, we’re very proud of what we accomplished tonight.”
It was a welcome result for a coach, a team and a school that has adopted the word ‘Believe’ as its mantra – the word is painted on the gym wall for all to see – one of the final things that athletic director Jack Phalen did before he died in 2020.
While Witter was out a second time, Ricky Podgorski, then a senior at FHS, created Project WE BELIEVE, which included students and faculty submitting video of them saying, “We believe,” as well as adorning the school with pieces of tape that said “We believe” written on them by students, according to the FHS Voice.
The support brought Witter a big lift during a particularly difficult time.
“[When the leukemia returned], I had to rehash the whole thing, and everybody in the community did, too,” he said. “They supported me. Everyone was wearing their ‘Believe’ bands and taking pictures at Disney World and all over the country, and that stuff matters when you’re sitting in a hospital bed, trying to get well. It matters that other people Believe and other people are rooting for you and other people want you to come back.”
Witter is also grateful for the support he’s received since he returned.
“It was great back in August when I was able to come back and teach - I love teaching,” he said. “Everybody was so welcoming, and I can’t thank the people in this building enough for helping me come back and teach. The other night, the first game back. [Athletic director Matthew Martorelli] said some nice things before the game, the crowd gave me a nice ovation. It was overwhelming. It was humbling.”
Witter credited his son, Trey, for helping him along - emotionally and physically - through his illness.
“He visited me in the hospital one day and I said, this summer I finally win the state championship and I can’t even enjoy it,” Witter said. “My son’s perspective was, ‘Dad, what if you didn’t win a state championship? Now you have these great memories and you get to appreciate that.’ At least I could think back on what happened a couple of months earlier. It helped. It made me feel good about what we had done during that season.”
Trey also was the bone marrow donor for Duane when he needed the transplant.
Still, Witter doesn’t want to make this season, or even a game, about him. He has a lot to look forward to in this year’s squad, which is resilient and eager.
“A couple years ago, when we thought we were going to win another state championship, we looked at the Division II bracket and we liked our chances,” Witter said. “We thought we could make a run and win another championship. And that got taken away. Last year they had the shortened season and no fans and no state tournament.
“Now they’ve gotten some of this back and I think they’re hungry. … It’s a senior laden group, which is always better to coach. The kids have been in the program for four years. We don’t have transfers. We have a nice mix too, because we have some underclassmen that are contributing as well.”
Regardless of whether there’s a trip to the Mohegan Sun at the end of the horizon for the River Hawks, Witter said he’s going to appreciate every moment.
“Is it good to be back? I’ve been looking forward to this for 600 and something days,” Witter said. “The other night [the Northwest Catholic loss] was fine. Northwest was very gracious. Everyone came out and gave me an ovation, and that was great. But getting a W today in front of our student body, who again showed up to support us, that feels even better.
“Each one I’m going [to savor]. There’s a richness to defeat that motivates you and inspires you to work harder. But winning you feel like you’re being rewarded for all the effort you put in. Me, our staff, our kids, we put in a lot of effort to be good at basketball in Farmington.”