NEWTON — At a booth at Johnny’s Luncheonette in Newton Centre, Newton North boys’ volleyball coach Richard Barton looked around and asked Newton South boys’ volleyball coach Lucas Coffeen, “Did we come here when you were a kid?”
Coffeen didn’t remember. He and Barton have made many memories together over the last three decades. Barton is Coffeen’s stepfather, marrying Coffeen’s mother, Jennifer, in 1985 when Coffeen was 4 years old.
On Monday, the two men will make another lifelong memory when their two programs and crosstown rivals will square off in the South sectional final at Quincy High School at 6 p.m. It’s Newton North’s (16-4) first final since 2012 and South’s (11-8) second in three seasons. The two teams took different paths to the final, but their coaches are similar in many ways. On Sunday, Barton and Coffeen shared a meal and talked about their passion for the sport, their competitiveness, and how the stepfather influenced the stepson with a zen-like coaching style.
After Barton married into Coffeen’s family, Coffeen and his two sisters became exposed to volleyball. Barton took the Newton North boys’ and girls’ coaching position a year after the marriage, but coached the Stoneham girls’ program before that. Coffeen played other sports as a child, but gravitated toward volleyball.
“We just played so many different sports growing up that volleyball was just one of them, and for me, it turned out to be the one I loved the most,” Coffeen said.
When Coffeen became a freshman at Newton North in 1995, Barton was his coach. He was the Globe’s Boys’ Volleyball Player of the Year in 1999 and stayed in the city for college, playing volleyball at Mount Ida College for two seasons. Both Coffeen, a second-year coach for the Lions, and Barton, a 33-year veteran with the Tigers, have laid-back coaching styles reinforced by the belief that their players are capable of accomplishing greatness by learning and growing together. But Coffeen, a quiet coach, is a fierce competitor.
“He’s an emotional player who would definitely get involved in heated things as a match,” Barton said. “But as a coach, no.”
Barton is the same way, frequently sitting on the bench during matches, quietly observing “almost like Yoda,” he said. In Saturday’s semifinal match against Greater New Bedford, he said he got up maybe five times because he’s learned to trust his players’ talents, something Coffeen has admired and brought to the Newton South culture.
Coffeen’s competitiveness came through in all aspects of his volleyball on the court in high school and college, and even in two-on-two outdoor matches when Barton and Coffeen played as partners.
“There was a turning point where I would be like ‘Lucas go here, this is what you should do in this situation,’” Barton said. “Then, about after a year, he was better than I was and he was like ‘Really, Richard? You can’t even pass the ball.’”
Barton taught his apprentice well. In college, Coffeen took winning to another level. After his first semester, there was a list of student-athletes with the best GPAs on a wall outside the Mount Ida athletic center.
“I was fourth. There were three people ahead of me with 4.0s and I had gotten a B-plus and four A’s,” Coffeen said. “And that totally motivated me to be number one on that list.
And the semester after that I got a 4.0 and I was number one on the list. And they didn’t put up the list after that.”
The end result was predictable.
“Were you valedictorian of your class and graduate summa cum laude at Mount Ida?” Barton asked Coffeen.
“I won’t deny that,” Coffeen replied with a laugh.
After college, Coffeen worked in the healthcare tech industry in project and product management. He decided to change careers two years ago and is now a physical education teacher in the Newton Public Schools. But while in tech, he focused a lot on studying human behavior and intrinsic rewards, areas both he and Barton apply to their teams’ practices to improve their quality of play.
“Coaching is overdrive in terms of motivation and intrinsic rewards,” Coffeen said. In every practice that we plan, it’s behavior economics on steroids. We’re designing point systems, we’re designing ways for you to beat people in these other drills, ways for you to stand out . . . ways for you to receive this intrinsic positive reinforcement.”
Newton South needed plenty of reinforcement this season. While North went 13-4 and cruised into the postseason, South won its first five matches, lost eight of its next nine due to many injuries, and qualified for the postseason in its last match of the regular season. The Lions were down two sets to defending South sectional champion Needham on Friday before coming back to win, 3-2. The Tigers haven’t lost a set this postseason, dispatching O’Bryant, Randolph, and top-seeded Greater New Bedford.
The two Newton teams met once during the regular season, a 3-0 North win on May 3. They met in the 2012 South sectional final, which North won. But this match feels a little more special. There is no animosity between Barton and Coffeen, mentor and mentee. Monday’s match will be a culmination of three decades devoted to volleyball and a high point in a relationship nurtured by love of the sport. Both men say they just hope for good volleyball, and this is the farthest in a tournament the two teams can face each other, but in between bites of falafel, Barton snuck in one quiet, quick competitive quip.
“[Only] one of us is going to have a next match,” he said.