Last Saturday at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Cheshire’s Nick Chaconis felt nervous and excited as the final seconds ticked down in the second quarter of the University of Connecticut football home game against the University of Illinois. As the teams headed to their locker rooms for halftime, Chaconis was brought out onto the field to be recognized in front of the crowd and the TV audience.
As one of nine people to be inducted into the Connecticut High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame this year, Chaconis was honored to have his name called out in a ceremony.
“It was overwhelming for the honorees and former coaches who came to the event,” said Chaconis.
In coaching girls’ basketball for 41 seasons at Portland High School, Chaconis earned a 548-345 record. He also spent 42 seasons as the boys’ and girls’ outdoor track and field head coach, compiling over 400 wins.
After helping to shape the lives of countless young people, Chaconis was honored to see many former student-athletes at the UConn game.
“I couldn’t believe the support from family and friends,” stated Chaconis. “(PHS Athletic Director) Chris Serra sent out a letter to the school and community to let people know about the game.”
Back in June, Serra informed Chaconis that he had nominated him for the CHSCA Hall of Fame. Chaconis had already been named a Hall of Famer by the Portland Sports (2005) and Connecticut Women’s Basketball (2013) organizations.
“When Chris called and said that he was submitting my name for this honor, I said, ‘Thank you,’” recalled Chaconis. “I filled out some information and then it got sent to a committee, who votes on the candidates. They look at your coaching stats and past history.”
Earlier this month, Chaconis learned that he had been selected for induction. He will be recognized at the CHSCA Banquet to be held on Thursday, Nov. 21, at 7 p.m. at the Aqua Turf Club in Plantsville.
“It left me speechless to be considered,” stated Chaconis. “It is an honor to be recognized among so many great coaches.”
While growing up in Wallingford, Chaconis didn’t imagine winning awards. As an athlete, he competed for the basketball and track and field teams at Xavier High School in Middletown. He extended his track and field career at Southern Connecticut State University.
“Growing up, I was always involved in sports,” reflected Chaconis. “I loved the teamwork and friendship (aspects). As a kid, you become bonded to your teammates.”
Chaconis credits his coaches for motivating him to pursue coaching and teaching.
“I felt that those things allowed me to stay involved with athletics,” Chaconis recalled.
In 1973, Chaconis was hired as a PHS special education teacher. When the school founded a girls’ basketball team the following year, he took the job as inaugural head coach.
“I was 22 years old,” reflected Chaconis. “Heading into my first season, I think ‘nervous’ is a word that comes to mind.”
He felt that his early years represented a process of trial and error.
“You draw from your high school experience and learn from your mistakes,” explained Chaconis. “You make adjustments and move on.”
Chaconis felt that he was blessed with great assistant coaches. Arnie Liscombe started with him and spent 15 years on the staff.
“My assistants were more than coaches,” reflected Chaconis. “They were in the background and could sense if something was going on behind the scenes.”
Along with Liscombe, Chaconis also sought out the advise of former PHS boys’ basketball head coach Gene Reilly in his early years.
“He put me under his wing and was a mentor for me,” Chaconis said.
With the support of his peers, Chaconis coached PHS to 35 state tournament berths. The Highlanders also captured eight league titles and won 20 or more games on four occasions.
After 36 years, Chaconis was excited to take PHS to the state finals in 2010.
“We had reached the semifinals 10 times before that, so to finally break through was rewarding,” recalled Chaconis.
In a tight Class S title game, Portland fell 39-37 to St. Paul Catholic.
“We walked onto the court at Mohegan Sun (Arena in Uncasville) and lost by a basket,” stated Chaconis. “When you lose for the first time in the finals, you don’t think you will make it back. Fortunately, we had the core of our team returning the next year.”
Using that experience, PHS reached the 2011 Class S and made history in winning the program’s first title, 45-41, over Cromwell.
“It was special to win after all those years, but I was more ecstatic for the school and the community,” explained Chaconis. “Portland is a small town. To get to that level and win was rewarding for everyone.”
Winning the crown didn’t come without adversity. In the fourth quarter of the title game, PHS star Kelly Coleman fouled out and had to sit for the rest of the game.
“I’ll never forget looking over to see 5:08 on the clock and thinking, ‘How are we going to finish this game?’” said Chaconis.
In the clutch, the Highlanders made 14 of 15 free throws to clinch the title.
“It (the situation) showed that we weren’t a one-player team. The girls played to their strengths,” reflected Chaconis. “In practice, we never worked on what to do if our top player fouls out. You just hope the team is prepared for that moment.”
With his team’s success, Chaconis has been recognized over the years. After being named the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference Coach of the Year in 1985, he was selected as a National Girls’ Basketball Coach of the Year finalist in 2001 and 2005.
“It was humbling to be selected. It meant a lot for them to recognize our program,” said Chaconis, who also received the Central Connecticut District Board Award in 2012.
In 2015, Chaconis chose to retire from coaching basketball.
“I think you know when the time is right to retire. It was tough being away from family for a lot of years,” said Chaconis. “Once I made the decision, it was still very difficult to say goodbye.”
While giving up basketball, he chose to coach PHS track and field and teach for one more year.
“It kept me active. After basketball season, it was always a relief to get outdoors and switch gears,” explained Chaconis. “In that last year, it was struggle walking past the gym and not coaching (basketball). I still stuck my head in to say hello to the coaches and team.”
In reflection, Chaconis is most proud of having seen his athletes succeed in the classroom and in life. He still receives emails from former players.
“I wanted people to develop strong ties with their families and teammates,” reflected Chaconis.
Chaconis has received congratulatory messages in anticipation of the CHSCA Dinner in November. For tickets ($46), call John Fontana at (860) 628-4122 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.