AJ Mahar returns to MAU to coach girls basketball

BENNINGTON — Sometimes there's no place like home and that seems to ring true for Bennington native AJ Mahar.

During the 2003-04 basketball season, Mahar was finishing up a stellar career at Mount Anthony Union. He was a McDonald's High School All-American nominee that season and he was named the Vermont Basketball Coaches Association Boy's Basketball Player of the Year.

Fast forward 14 years and an older, more experienced Mahar will return to the sidelines of Kates Gym, but this time he'll be coaching the girls basketball team.

Mahar takes over for Dan Sleeman, who had coached at MAU for 16 years. Sleeman coached the boys program for most of that time and only took over the girls program before last season. He cited personal reasons for stepping down in August.

For a guy who was born and bred in Bennington, getting a chance to be a head coach at the school he grew up in and had countless amazing athletic experiences was an opportunity he couldn't pass up.

"I know a lot the girls on the team already from doing skill work with them when they were little kids," Mahar said. "Having an opportunity to actual get my thumbprint on a program in town to rebuild it to where I saw it when I was growing up was really intriguing to me. I've said for years that if I had the team I would do this or I would do that and now the opportunity finally presented itself, so I figured I'd give it a shot."

Monday was the first day of basketball activities for Vermont schools and Mahar made it clear that he's looking to build something with the group he has.

"We're trying to build a culture and see them come together," said Mahar about the emphasis in early practices. "We're trying to have them develop some skills and really become a tough defensive-minded team."

The new gig with the Patriots is not Mahar's first stop on the coaching carousel. He most recently was an assistant coach under Dan Engelstad with the Southern Vermont College men's basketball team for four seasons. Before that he was an assistant coach at MAU, coaching the boy's program, while also spending time as an assistant at The Albany Academy. He played his college ball at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I. While with the Bulldogs, he was a part of the 2005 team that were runner-up in the NCAA Division II tournament.

Mahar sees a lot of parallels from the situation he coached in with the Mountaineers and his current job with the Patriots.

"When I started there with Dan Engelstad, the program was worse off than where they are now," Mahar said. "(MAU) had a great year last year and went to the semifinals and lost probably 75-80 percent of our scoring. It's kind of a rebuild in a sense like when Dan took over SVC. Seeing how Dan approached the program to rebuild and change the culture and involve everyone, it's at a similar stage (with MAU) you could say."

MAU finished last season with an 18-5 record, losing to eventual state champion Champlain Valley Union 51-36 in the Division I state semifinals.

When it comes to expectations for the season, Mahar holds high hopes, but he knows it's going to take some work to reach the lofty precedent set by last season's team.

"Obviously, the goal is to win, but this is more of a year of building a program," Mahar said. "We're going to develop a lot. The team you see come February or March is going to be completely different than the one you see today, next week, next month. We've got a great group of athletes and intelligent players, so they sky is so high for these girls."

The Patriots will kick off the regular season Dec. 9 against Essex at Keefe Gym in Rutland at 3 p.m. MAU also has a scrimmage scheduled for Dec. 7 against Hoosac Valley in Cheshire, Mass.

Adam Aucoin can be reached at aaucoin@benningtonbanner.com and at @AAucoin_Banner on Twitter.


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