In spirit, as young as his team

High schools: His love for soccer helps Rick Pizarro, 76, wear his years lightly as a new coach at Annapolis.

September 25, 2004|By Glenn P. Graham | Glenn P. Graham,SUN STAFF

These days, Rick Pizarro can be found zipping down Interstate 97 in his red Acura to make an afternoon practice with his latest project, the Annapolis High girls soccer team.

He sports Umbro soccer shorts, the colorful Diadora shoes all the kids are wearing, a healthy crop of brown hair that shows a hint of red and a respectable jump in his step that keeps him right in the mix of the various drills he diligently instructs.

With him is more than 50 years of knowledge obtained from playing, refereeing and mostly coaching the game he loves and still can't get enough of.

His new and attentive audience is a bit curious about one thing: Just how young is Coach Pizarro?

"We've been trying to figure it out and he told us to read some article they're doing on him, so I'm going to make sure to read that article," said senior captain Ashley Francois.

"He says he's pretty old. ... My first guess would be somewhere in the 60s. But then he says `really old' so maybe 70-ish - my grandpa's age - something like that. I'm just not sure."

The number is 76, but Pizarro is far from your typical 76-year-old.

If he's not at the gym in the morning, he's likely taking a brisk, 45-minute walk. He also swims, and last winter was smacking back hundreds of fuzzy balls hurled at him by a tennis machine.

Still, there's always time - a seemingly endless amount - for soccer.

"He would eat and sleep soccer seven days a week, 24 hours a day if he could," said his wife, Ada. "That's what he loves, and you can't change it. We have soccer magazines all over the place. We have soccer on TV. For the big games [overseas], he sets the alarm and it goes off in the middle of the night. If I wasn't around, he'd have a bigger screen to look at."

Pizarro's introduction to the sport came in 1947 at Springfield College in Massachusetts, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in education. He ran cross country in high school, but was looking to try something new in college.

"I didn't think I was tough enough for football, so I asked what else they had besides that," said Pizarro. "They said we got a soccer team that just won the national championship. I said `Sign me up.'"

From there, Pizarro distinctly remembers going to the library to find out how many players were on a soccer team. He played for the freshman team, made varsity as a sophomore and the rest is history - as an extensive and typewritten resume reflects.

A native of Mount Vernon, N.Y., who moved to Baltimore in 1951, Pizarro broadened his soccer education in Europe, where, among other things, he coached an American high school team in West Germany and attended a coaches clinic in England in the mid-1950s.

"I used some techniques I learned from watching the German teams and the English teams and the Brazilians, so my coaching is a composite of some of the experience I gained when I was over in Europe. It was invaluable," Pizarro said.

Back in Baltimore in 1961 to teach physical education at Woodlawn High, he spent 23 years coaching the boys team, won two state titles coaching the Centennial girls for three seasons in the early '90s and also coached varsity teams at Catonsville, Archbishop Spalding and Owings Mills. There were also a handful of junior varsity coaching assignments along the way.

Throughout, Pizarro taught by example.

"One of the things I took from him was he was always extremely fit, so when we would scrimmage, he'd be right in there, too," said Ian Reid, who played for Woodlawn in the early '70s, went on to have a successful career at Loyola College and is now coach of the Franklin High boys team.

"I learned from that, and feel I'm a hands-on coach, much like he was. Getting involved with the players and being able to demonstrate - he had all the techniques down - I've always felt that's really important as a coach."

It continues to be important to Pizarro, who shows no signs of slowing down.

Ada Pizarro finds herself answering the same question from the couple's five grown children, who are spread out over the East Coast: "Everybody in the family says: `Isn't it about time he gives it up?' But this is who he is and what he loves - you can't change him."

After another coaching opportunity fell through, Pizarro put in a call over the summer to see if anything was open in Anne Arundel. He took the Annapolis job in July and quickly went to work.

The program at Annapolis has never enjoyed much success and last year's team didn't win a game, giving Pizarro a chance to teach the basics.

Although the girls were taken aback by Pizarro at first - there was an eight-minute mile that had to be run on the first day to make the team and his direct, tell-it-like-it-is ways in correcting mistakes - they have come around nicely.

The Panthers, now 2-2, won their first county game against North County, 3-1, and also defeated Meade, 4-1, last week

"It's definitely an experience that none of us have had before," Francois said. "We're working harder, not just for ourselves, but for him, too. I think in the beginning, not a lot of us appreciated him as much as we should have.

"But now that we've made such an improvement, we see that all the stuff he teaches us is actually working. Things are really looking up, so I'm excited."

And Pizarro keeps on going. "Beautiful," he yelled to one of his players after she made a perfect crossing pass during a recent practice. "Now, do the same thing again and again and again."

So what about life without coaching, Coach?

"Well ... " Pizarro said, pausing, "I don't know. I've never thought about not coaching. I guess that's why I've kept on coaching."

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