Brianna Pacileo — by all measures the greatest player in the history of Woodland volleyball — stood on the court at Berlin High Nov. 16 with a state championship medal around her neck, grinning at every question about her team’s 3-1 win over Foran.
But there wasn’t enough room between her piercing blue eyes and her wide smile to contain her emotions when asked about what Hawks coach Jim Amato meant to her.
“Coach Amato is the best coach I’ve ever had,” gushed Pacileo, a three-sport athlete throughout her life. “He always knows the right things to say and the right things to do when we get into rough patches. Without him, this team would be completely different.”
Then, she summed up Amato with just four words.
“He’s an odd one.”
We stood around for a little while after the Hawks’ win — Pacileo, Amato, Samantha Lee and me — talking about the match, the atmosphere, the program’s history and the media blitz that ensued after Lee served up the championship-clinching point. They weren’t really used to anybody but Ken Morse, Ernie Bertothy or me chatting to them after a match, so I had to explain who everyone was and what they were doing.
Pacileo interjected, the seeming guilt for calling her favorite coach “odd” eating away at the tournament MVP. We puzzled for another word to take its place. “Eccentric?” I asked her. “Eccentric!” she confirmed. “That would make me sound smart.”
Don’t worry, Bree is smart. But Amato didn’t mind his designation of being “odd.”
“Maybe it’s not so much a compliment as it is a fact,” Amato said. “For right now, odd is a good number to be — it’s No. 1.”
Amato isn’t like any other coach at any other place. He doesn’t think like anyone else. He doesn’t act like anyone else. And over the last few years, he doesn’t lose as much as almost anyone else.
Since 2007, his second year at the helm, Amato has won three Naugatuck Valley League championships, five NVL division titles and now a state championship. Add in the three league and three division crowns he has as the leader of the boys tennis program, and it’s easy to see that he’s set the standard for local coaches.
Unlike most coaches, though — maybe all coaches — Amato has done it without a high school or college career of his own. He’s a student of his games, as he says, with books about each of his sports stacked alongside “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad” in his second-floor office at Woodland.
His road to coaching, though, both belies and explains his success.
“I’ve never been able to play a minute of high school or college volleyball,” Amato said. “I get to live vicariously through them, and I appreciate and respect every minute that they allow me to sit the bench.”
There is more than a mutual respect among Amato and his players. It’s a mutual love.
“He’s a best friend,” Rachel Starkey said. “He’s so encouraging, and I wouldn’t want a different coach. There are some coaches who yell and scream, but he doesn’t and we know he’s there for us.”
“He’s the best coach I’ve ever had,” Lee chimed. “He keeps everything fun, even when we’re down. He picks us up and tells us what we need to change.”
Amato doesn’t really have a secret — “If I knew that I’d be putting on $2,000-a-day clinics for other coaches,” he said — other than expecting to one day snag the big Connecticut-shaped hunk of wood he held Saturday.
“Four years ago, we decided to set our goals higher so we had a reason to exist at the end of the season,” Amato said. “The tenor of our program and our focus changed. We dropped a couple heartbreakers early on, but all the girls who wanted to be title contenders were here on the floor today.”
A little more than a year before Amato’s program refocused itself on winning a state championship, he was still my journalism teacher at Woodland. It was the summer before my senior year, and I received an email from our old sports editor at Citizen’s News, Callum Borchers.
He said he was interested in bringing on a correspondent from Woodland, and Amato suggested my name. My first story was a column about trying out for Amato’s volleyball team. My most recent story has been a column about the state title for Amato’s volleyball team.
There’s something poetic in that, isn’t there?
We’re not supposed to having rooting interests in this job, and we suppress whatever natural instincts we have when we write these words. But when Woodland registered its final point Saturday, and the man to whom I owe much of my young career skipped across the floor, you’d better believe I pumped my fist with him.