Former Cony girls basketball coach Paul Vachon knew his Rams were in for a battle whenever they played a John Donato coached team.
If Donato’s teams were at a disadvantage, as they often were in the Cony’s heyday, Vachon could expect the unexpected.
“He was very difficult to go against because you never knew how he was going to play,” Vachon said. “He always mixed it up. He was a strategist.”
Vachon has long since retired from coaching and recently was joined by Donato, who stepped down at Lawrence after seven years with the Bulldogs that included two regional championships and a Class A state title. Donato’s coaching career extends much further, to five Maine high schools over 40 years. During that span his teams won 547 games and lost 219, while winning five state titles and 11 regional crowns.
“I’m retiring from teaching,” said Donato, who teaches science at Lawrence High School. “My wife may be relocating.”
Donato has resigned his coaching position as well, but left the door open should the right opportunity come along.
“If we relocate to the Bangor area there might be a chance,” he said. “I’d have to investigate it.”
Donato coached for 18 years at Houlton High School, leading the Shiretowners to nine regional titles and four Class B state championships. He enjoyed success at every stop, coaching for a year at Hall-Dale, nine at Messalonskee and five at Mount View. Messalonskee won 17 games during Donato’s first season and reached the postseason in each of his years there. He enjoyed similar success at Mount View, but when he arrived at Lawrence the team had fallen on hard times.
“I knew there was good talent coming,” Donato said.
That talent came to fruition when center Nia Irving, point guard Domi Lewis and some of their talented teammates arrived at the Fairfield school five years ago. The Bulldogs posted back-to-back unbeaten regular seasons, winning the state title over Thornton in 2015 and losing by a point to York in 2016.
“He’s so caring and helpful, whether it’s on or off the court,” said Irving, who was named Miss Maine Basketball and is currently on scholarship at Boston University. “He was always willing to come in and open up the gym for me so I could get some extra shots.”
Irving recalled how Donato would call the players into his room at lunch time to go over film prior to a big game.
“He had us each make out a scouting report,” she said.
Of all his wins, Donato is perhaps most proud of the state championship victory over Thornton.
“We played a team and a school that was three times our size,” he said. “We had something to prove.”
This year’s post-Irving Lawrence team went 12-6 and reached the tournament as a fourth seed. The Bulldogs will lose a couple of seniors but should be in contention. When Irving and Lewis were around, Donato’s teams pushed the ball up and down the court. This year, without a player over 5-foot-10, they played a more deliberate style.
“I’ve always played an offense and defense that resembles their personalities,” he said.
An avid golfer, Donato coached that sport for 18 years at Houlton and 16 at Lawrence, winning a couple of Eastern Maine titles along the way. He also coached baseball in his early days at Houlton. A three-sport athlete at Middleborough High in Massachusetts, he was inducted into the school’s hall of fame as a member of state championship basketball teams in 1965 and 1966.
He recalled his quote in the school’s yearbook: “Nothing comes between me and sports.”
Donato went on to play baseball and basketball at the former Ricker College.
“There’s no doubt not too long from now he’ll be in the (Maine Basketball) Hall of Fame,” Vachon said. “He’s very deserving.”