Mason’s Basketball Coach Moves On After 20 Years with Program

CHRIS CAPANNOLA’S ability to shoot straight with his players on the court and chop it up with them off it was his main ingredient in getting their best in games. (Photo: Carol Sly)

The cutting finality of life never dulls its blade. Things inevitably end; we just hope that we’re the ones who turn off the lights on the way out rather than someone, or something, else. Longtime George Mason High School boys basketball coach Chris Capannola will do just that as he leaves the program on his terms following nearly 20 years of memorable runs on the hardwood with the school moving up to the 3A classification next year.

To most people, Capannola is the slick-haired boss of The Pit — Mason’s subterranean-esque basketball court. They see him in games either squatting along the sideline or arms-folded and at attention. His range of emotions include silent approval, headshaking bewilderment or (everyone’s favorite) the occasional uncensored spurt of…honesty to get the team back on track. For those 32 minutes when the ball is live, Capannola waves the baton of his body language to make sure the players are hitting all the right notes. It feels like Capannola was made for this, but, ironically, basketball was on the bottom of his own sports medal stand.

Growing up in Niagara Falls, New York, baseball was Capannola’s first love, with football being a close second. He played both in college and knew before then that he always wanted to be around sports, hence his current position as a Physical Education teacher at Mason. Even as an athlete in his youth, Capannola would draw up plays and show them to coaches to see if they could run them, including a trick play in football that he schemed and executed which resulted in a 60-yard gain. It was a moment of material success that nudged him toward that path.

“I like the whole idea of figuring things out. That’s what drew me to it. It’s a big puzzle, and that’s what really excited me — learning what certain players can do and creating the team dynamic out of it” Capannola said. “It meant a lot to me when I played. The whole strategy of it, and the learning and the teaching, goes along with being a teacher.”

He and his wife, Sabrina, landed in Virginia in 1996 where Capannola started as a security guard for Mason. Athletics were never the defining feature of Mason, which to this day is still largely known as one of the premiere academic institutions in the country. But former athletic director Tom Horn had a vision to build up the school’s sports reputation. Horn gave Capannola the reins to do as he pleased with the boys basketball program starting in 1997, and it didn’t take Capannola long to make good on that trust.

Four years into the job, Capannola helped steer the Mustangs to a state semifinal run in the 2000-01 season that was dotted with magical moments throughout — an overtime win against Potomac Falls High School at The Pit in the early part of the season, defeating then-rival Brentsville District High School to win the Bull Run District tournament and a thrilling regional win over Prince Edward County High School. Suddenly, small town Falls Church was enthralled with Mason’s first trip to the semifinals since 1966.

But health concerns with Capannola’s father pulled him to Ohio the following school year. It would be another four years until he found his way back to Northern Virginia and back at the helm of Mason’s basketball program. And then, as Capannola noted, it would be another three to four years of inculcating the players about his expectations and his system.

GETTING A BETTER VIEW of the action is Capannola, along with assistant coach Michael Gilroy, during this year’s state quarterfinal match-up against Goochland High School. (Photo: Carol Sly)

Finally in the 2008-09 season he saw the seeds were planted, and soon after Mason would make two consecutive runs to the state tournament in 2011 and 2012. It was the beginning of a dynastic trend where Capannola would shepherd a team to the final stages of the season every couple of years, from the Nate Ogle-led squads in 2011 and 2012 to the Robert Tartt and Elliot Mercado-led group in 2016 and the Max Ashton and Hollman Smith-led team this past winter.

“I tell the kids every year, ‘You guys coming back have a responsibility here. You can’t just show up. These guys laid groundwork, you can’t mess around. There’s a standard to be met,’” Capannola added, while noting how he balances these demands on the court with a personal understanding of the players off it. “You have to be good to these kids. They gotta know they mean something more than a number on the basketball court. You need to know what they’re about, and if you fake that they’ll see right through you as well. I try to let them know I care about them as people, too.”

Living up the highs of each of those sprints to the state tournament is countered by their scar-laden conclusions. Capannola admits he’ll watch the last second win over Graham High School in the 2016 state quarterfinals a thousand times over, but he still hasn’t watched the overtime loss to Greensville County High School in the state semifinals immediately after that, or the loss to Goochland High School from this March. From questioning his player decisions to the X’s and O’s, reviewing the tape is often a form of psychological torture — particularly because the losses have already been so branded into his brain that he doesn’t need film to recount how things unraveled.

Learning to swallow those horse-pill-sized losses — and to let go afterward — has been an adjustment since his early days as a coach when he thought he could micromanage his way to wins. But Capannola states he doesn’t regret not being able to hoist a state championship at Mason. To him, winning is secondary to the bonds that are forged within teams during their seasons.

He takes pride knowing that the 2001 state team still stays in touch with one another even as adults in their 30s. And he can leave Mason with a peace of mind knowing the spirit of his coaching style and the respect the program gained will live on with his protegés, boys assistant coach Michael Gilroy and girls basketball head coach Chris Carrico, who’d both been with Capannola for over a decade and have left their imprint on the team’s achievements.

Most of all, Capannola wants to be known for the ethics of his work. He didn’t cut corners, he didn’t pull tricks, he just clocked in each day to make the program better. Along the way, he was one of the key figures who nurtured a sports culture at Mason. So as he bids adieu to Mustang basketball, he hopes there’s no uncertainty over what he’ll be remembered for.

“Just that I did things the right way. I did right by the kids, the community and the parents,” Capannola said. “We say ‘Mustang Pride’ was a football thing that Horn started. There’s a whole lot of that at this school now — and I know there’s a lot of it in the basketball program. They’re expected to win now and there’s a pride thing that has to go with that. We’ve instilled that and it’s self-perpetuating. [Sports] have become a sense of pride for the school and for the kids.”