Jeff Mitchell. Contributed photo.

Jeff Mitchell knows he has some pretty large shoes to fill as he replaces longtime Cape Elizabeth boys’ basketball coach Jim Ray, a member of the New England Basketball Hall of Fame, who retired in May after 350 victories, five regional titles and one state championship.

But Mitchell, 41, Cape Elizabeth High School Class of 1998, is a dyed-in-the-wool Caper, knows what it takes to make the program succeed and is eager and uniquely qualified to accept the challenge.

“For me, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” said Mitchell. “I’m looking forward to it. It’s exciting to give back. It’s pretty neat to come full circle. The program gave me a lot as an athlete and Coach Ray had a huge impact on my life, both with basketball and things I tap into now as an adult. I know I have some very big shoes to fill. Coach Ray left the program in immaculate condition.”

Mitchell’s freshman year of high school basketball, 1994-95, was also Ray’s first as Capers’ coach. Mitchell played four years of varsity hoops and also was a member of dominant boys’ soccer and boys’ lacrosse teams in high school, playing for such luminaries as Charlie Burch, Ben Raymond and Andy Strout.

After graduating from Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, Mitchell lived in Massachusetts until 2016, when he returned home to open a Portland branch of his company, Digital Impulse Verge, a creative and digital marketing agency.

After returning to Cape Elizabeth, Mitchell felt the urge to get back into basketball and started coaching, first with travel teams and at youth camps, then spending the past two years as the girls’ junior varsity coach and assistant girls’ varsity coach at Cape Elizabeth under Chris Casterella.

“I think Jeff will do a great job leading the boys’ program,” said Casterella, a one-time Capers standout who has been the girls’ coach since 2007. “Jeff has so many things going for him, including having grown up here, having played for Coach Ray and thrived under him and having a passion for basketball and for teaching kids the game of basketball. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this is Jeff’s dream job. He’s a Caper, so there’s an immense amount of pride and dedication that comes with coaching in the town where you were raised.

“Jeff is extremely organized and pays attention to detail. He’s super-competitive yet understands that while winning is the goal, there are several lessons to be learned from losing. He’s absolutely wonderful with kids and did an exceptional job with our JV program the past two years as well as coaching many of the second through fourth grade girls over the past two years. Jeff has a great rapport with kids while also making it clear that he’s the one calling the shots. Jeff will surround himself with knowledgeable coaches who share his passion for the game. He’s able to think outside the box and understands that kids thrive within a system where there’s goal-setting and expectations. Jeff’s well known in the community and I think he’ll attract lots of kids to the basketball program in the years to come.  He has a vision and a plan for the program and he’s willing to devote the necessary time to give that vision and plan a chance to play out.”

As for Coach Ray, he believes his former player has what it takes to keep the program on the short list of annual title contenders.

“Jeff is very competitive,” Ray said. “As a coach, I am confident that he will bring the same pride, passion and work ethic that he did when he was a player. I wish him and the players in the program all the best.”

Cape Elizabeth athletic director Jeff Thoreck, another alumnus, concurs.

“In addition to serving as the JV and varsity assistant coach for the past two years, Jeff has been actively involved in the Cape Elizabeth Youth and Middle School travel programs,” said Thoreck. “His familiarity with the community will be invaluable in providing a smooth transition as we move forward.

“Jeff’s passion, coaching style and philosophies will be a great fit for our student-athletes. We are very excited to have Jeff join the coaching staff as the new leader of the program. As an alum, he is familiar with the history and traditions associated with the program along with the expectations of our student-athletes.”

Mitchell, who lives with his wife in Cape Elizabeth and is the father of two young girls, has the additional challenge of inheriting a new program during the middle of a pandemic, meaning he (and assistant/JV coach Joey Doane) can only supervise skills and drills until early January. The season is tentatively scheduled to begin Jan. 11 and there is a lot of work to do, but Mitchell likes what he’s seen from the Capers, who went 8-12 a year ago, losing, 49-36, to Wells in the Class B South semifinals.

“There are logistical challenges, but we’re figuring it out on the fly and trying to get as much out of our practices as possible,” said Mitchell. “I’m a big believer that it’s not a one-way street. I want to hear from (the kids) what they think works well. We have some smart kids. The energy they bring has impressed me the most. If they bring their passion and positive energy every day, we’ll be in good shape. In a weird way, this year allows me to transition into the program in a low-pressure scenario.”

The Cape Elizabeth boys’ program is unique in regards to its continuity. Amazingly, Mitchell is just the Capers’ fourth coach dating back to 1966, following Leroy Rand, John Casey and Ray.

“This position doesn’t open up often and the time was right for me,” Mitchell said. “I have a sense I can really relate to the players. I went to the same high school and also played for Coach Ray. I can relate to his style and work ethic.

“Every coach is different. While I admire, respect and learned a lot from Coach Ray, I have my own style. I have some ideas on implementing some new things. I’m fine that not a lot of people know who I am. I love studying and scheming and trying to be smarter than the other team. It’s a challenge, but I’m definitely up for it.”

Mitchell does insist that the program’s foundation will remain unchanged.

“High intensity defense is fundamental to everything we do,” Mitchell said. “We’ll get 110 percent out of every player. That won’t go away.”

It’s unlikely we’ll have a postseason this year and the regular season will be abbreviated, but it is safe to say that the Capers will remain a factor for years to come.

A proud Cape Elizabeth alumnus wouldn’t have it any other way.

“My hope is to have the program at the point where it’s constantly reloading talent,” Mitchell said. “I’ve talked to the kids about winning a state championship at Cape and how if you win one you become a legend in this town.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

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