Earlier this year, the AF Hartford High Girls’ Varsity Basketball team won the Capitol Region Athletic League Championship.
We sat down with the team’s coach, Rafael Salado, to learn more about their breakout season.
Thanks for chatting, Rafael! Let’s start at the beginning: Tell us about yourself and your journey.
I grew up in Boston. I have a strong passion to develop as a coach; I love eating ice cream (Ben & Jerry’s) and enjoy the outdoors, especially fishing. I studied criminal justice for my bachelor’s degree and have a master’s in management.
I found out about AF Hartford High through my fiancée while she was working here through Teach For America. I realized that I have a passion for youth development, so I applied at AF. During the 16-17 season, in addition to coaching, I was a behavior specialist. In the upcoming school year, I will transition to be a physical education teacher and the athletic director, and continue as the girls’ varsity basketball coach.
Congratulations on the new gig, and an amazing season! Can you share more about your basketball team?
Our basketball team is very unique! The girls are tough—they go through 8-9 hours of school before attending practice and games. We have high expectations to be a Lady Royal: players must be on time, pass all classes to practice, give 100% at all times and demonstrate the utmost respect for the game, opponents and team. Being around this team is always a treat! We have a wide range of personalities and a great sense of humor! Our team slogan is “Stand Strong.” It started out in practice when some of the players were slouching after running sprints, but then it branched out to achieving academically and fighting through adversity inside and outside of school.
People might be surprised to hear that a small, charter high school has such a strong athletic department. What would you say in response?
We are a small school with a small selection of sports, and many of our players have limited experience. However, we have some of the most incredible student athletes around! Despite relentless expectations, countless sprints, extra hours in the gym, and constantly demanding excellence, the team members develop, adapt and evolve as players, and more importantly, as people.
Our record of 18-6 and winning the championship this year does not define our success. My definition of success comes in two forms: academic achievement and being good people! Basketball is a tool to develop these two traits. My goal is to build a strong program to one day compete with Capital Prep. My last two seasons where building blocks. The year before I arrived, the girls’ basketball team was 1-19, my first year we went 10-12 and my second year we went 18-6. This happened because the team bought into our program and the commitments they needed to make on and off the court. The strength of our basketball team will be definitely be tested this season to see if we can repeat what we did last year.
So, what drives you as a coach?
I feel we are the underdogs against every team we play. We have limited resources, and I’m competing against coaches who think they have the dream team. So that sparks a fire in me. I have the same background as some of our players, so I try to show my team that basketball is a platform for you to develop, tell and own your story. You are the brush, and the court is your canvas. Basketball teaches you life skills if you embrace it and pour everything you have into it.
On a personal note, I also have this inner drive to strive for greatness for my Latino community—we don’t see many head basketball coaches at the highest levels of the sport. Basketball was a safe haven for me growing up. After school, I would go to the Boys & Girls Club in Dorchester to play basketball. Because of my obsession with basketball growing up, it deterred me from making the wrong decision that could have altered my trajectory.
As a teenager, basketball was a way to cope with being homeless, the death of my best friend and my mom having to work multiple jobs to support our family. Basketball helped steer me to college when I was recruited to play for New England College. Before being recruited, I really had no idea what to do after high school. So when some people say “basketball saved my life,” for me, it literary put me on this path.
Thank you for sharing that! Speaking of when you were growing up, if you could go back in time and give yourself some advice when you were just starting out as a player and coach, what would it be?
If I could go back into time, I wouldn’t change anything. I’d say, you learn from your mistakes, and you can become a better individual through your experiences. I believe everything happens for a reason, but you can control your path by steering it in direction you in envision for yourself and others.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
This past season couldn’t have happened without those involved in our program supporting us when we needed them. I want to thank my assistant Coach Harper for his dedication, Nick Lebron and his family, my fiancée for her support and patience, all of our parents and the AF Team & Family, and of course, the amazing, invested team members. Thank you to all!
And thank YOU, Coach Salado, for all your hard work and dedication to the team!