Sam Leal is the next men’s basketball coach at the University of Maine at Farmington, his alma mater. Photo provided by Bates College

It’s not every day that someone lands a dream job for their first head coaching gig.

In April, Sam Leal received that opportunity. An assistant coach at the time at Bates College in Lewiston, Leal was offered the opportunity to take over the men’s basketball program at the school he was most familiar with, the University of Maine at Farmington.

“I was thrilled when they called me,” Leal said. “They didn’t even have to say a couple of words before I said ‘I accept. I’m in. Let’s do this.'”

This was no small move, on several fronts. Leal is just six years removed from his final game as a scrappy, 6-foot guard at UMF. He would also be taking the program over from his former coach Dick Meader, who is a member of three — yes, three! — hall of fames; Maine Basketball Hall of Fame, Maine Sports Hall of Fame and the New England Basketball Hall of Fame. Meader stepped down in March after 44 seasons on the sidelines,14 at Thomas College in Waterville and 27 at UMF. Meader finished with 513 victories and five North Atlantic Conference Coach of the Year awards.

And if that wasn’t enough, he took over the program at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, which put sports on hold. The uncertainty of when, or if, his team would hit the floor of the Dearborn Gym lingered for months, but the program did receive some clarity of late when the NAC recently decided to wait until January to make a decision on conference play. Leal is determined to lean on his youthful exuberance when setting the tone for the program.

“It feels like home in Farmington, even though I’m a southern Maine kid,” Leal said. “I know the area well. I love skiing, I love the outdoors. With Farmington being as reputable as a coaching/education school, for me, it’s a perfect fit to come back to, because I think I can sell it well with the experience I got here.”

“I’m proud to be in these (coaching) shoes now, and hope to keep the tradition — not hope, I plan to keep the tradition — of great basketball and great student athlete experience going here at UMaine-Farmington.”

Leal knows he’s tasked with filling some giant shoes. A two-time captain at York High School, Leal started his playing career for Meader at UMF during the 2010-2011 season. Leal’s best season came in his senior year (2013-2014), when he led the Beavers with 102 assists and 40 steals in 28 games.

“Everyone tells me I have big shoes to fill, and there’s no doubt about that,” Leal said. “I learned so much from him, just in terms of being a consistent gentleman day in and day out. That type of demeanor and respect that he had earned from me is something that I would like to continue with the program. I’m absolutely grateful, because I’m not taking over a program that is in the dumps or need this dramatic change. I’m taking over a program with a really rich history, a tremendous alumni base of terrific players, and then also, so many terrific coaches that have gone through UMaine-Farmington, coaching at the high school level all the way up to the pro level.”

It certainly helps that Meader approved of Leal taking over the program.

“I am thrilled Sam Leal has accepted the position as the next men’s basketball coach at UMF,” Meader said in a statement after Leal’s hiring. “As a former player, he is one of us.  He has the knowledge, leadership ability, and work ethic to be an outstanding coach.”

Leal has certainly received in education since he’s hit the coaching ranks. After graduation from UMF in 2014, he was hired as an assistant under Karl Henrikson at the University of Southern Maine. In 2017, Leal moved on to work as a graduate assistant at Springfield College in Massachusetts, under longtime coach Charlie Brock. His most recent stop before UMF was a full-time assistant position under Jon Furbush at Bates. Leal said he still keeps in touch with the coaches from his previous schools.

Sam Leal, a former UMF player, was named the new head coach for the UMF men’s basketball program in April. Contributed photo/University of Maine at Farmington athletics

“It’s not just the player-coach relationship that’s so much fun to develop, but then there’s this whole world of coaches that are supporting each other,” Leal said. “I talk constantly with the Springfield College coaches, Bates coaches, Southern Maine coaches, and a bunch of my other friends in the business so we can support each other, so we can be the best coaches we can for our players. We love the competition of games, but outside of the games, we’re all just trying to learn from each other and just try to put the best foot forward for our program.”

“Sam did a tremendous job for us at Bates,” Furbush said in a statement after Leal’s hiring. “His passion for the game and commitment to the development of our student-athletes, not just as basketball players but as young men, was an integral part of our success this year. Sam has great energy and positively influences all people he works with. While he will be greatly missed, I couldn’t be happier for him to start his own program.  He’ll be a great addition to the UMF athletics department.”

Leal held a wide array of responsibilities for the Bobcats under Furbush, including running the team’s social media, leading fundraising events and traveling around the country recruiting players. Leal won’t have the same resources he had at Bates, he does have the ears of assistant coach Jim Bessey, who was hired in 2012 after 34 years leading the Mt. Blue boys basketball team (and an additional four years at Madison). Bessey will stay on the staff, and has been a valuable soundboard.

“To say I’m lucky is an understatement,” Leal said. “He comes in and we have a little bit of a “Basketball Hour” each day of the week and talk hoops. He keeps me on my toes and prepared, asks all the questions that I’ve never really faced before. He’s just a really good mentor for me to have still in the program.”

On the floor, Leal is thrilled with the team he’s inheriting, and he should be. The Beavers finished last season with a 22-5 record before falling 72-71 to SUNY Canton in the in the NAC championship game. Junior guard Terion Moss (18.3 ppg) returns as the leading scorer, though the Beavers had six players average 10 points or more last season, including junior center Jack Kane, who averaged 10.3 points per game and 7.3 rebounds per game last season. Leal regards Kane as the best center in the NAC.

“A lot of people are trending to a 5-out (motion) system, but for us, we have the best big, so we’re going to be playing a lot of 4-out-1 (in motion offense), and creating space not only for our guards to knock down shots, but for our big to get touches where there’s only one defender on him. When (teams) send two (defenders), he’ll know to kick out to our shooters to knock down (3-pointers).”

Despite the pandemic, Leal said the team managed to have 30 practices. Recruiting, to this point, has not been much of an issue as well.

“I’m absolutely going to be just recruiting the best student athletes that fit our school and fit our program and fit our guys,” Leal said. “So number one, just recruiting the best and most talented guys we possibly can to the program. We’ll definitely have some consistencies (in play), but it’s all about understanding and learning what your players can do. My job and our staff are going to work together like crazy to be able to find the best way we can put them in positions to showcase their skills.”

It remains to be seen if Leal can indeed fill Meader’s giant shoes at UMF. However, this much is certain: Leal is eager to try on those shoes.

 

Dave Dyer — 621-5610

[email protected]

Twitter: @Dave_Dyer

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