Cherie Pizzano was already established as Linden’s softball coach in 2000 when another coaching opportunity struck.
“I was called in to meet with (principal) Barry Black and (athletic director) Steve Yesinko, I recall,” Pizzano said.
That was because of a recommendation made by a student named Joseph Quinn, who was one of Linden’s top bowlers at the time. He wanted Linden to hire a coach that knew something about bowling.
“I bowled in leagues and Joseph knew of me from his older brother and father bowling in the same leagues,” Pizzano said.
That was good enough for Black and Yesinko to say to Pizzano: “you’re the bowling coach.”
“I didn’t even have to apply,” Pizzano said.
Pizzano’s first season was 2000-2001, with Quinn leading the way as the individual winner for the section North 2 that winter.
Fast forward to this year – Linden accumulated a winning streak that reached 43 before it ended, while the Tigers repeated as Union County Tournament champions.
For all of her success as Linden’s bowling coach for almost two complete decades now, Pizzano will soon be honored as part of this year’s New Jersey State Coaches Association (NJSCA) Hall of Fame class.
The affair will take place March 24 at The Westin Princeton at Forrestal Village in Princeton.
Pizzano is a 1989 Union Catholic graduate who was a starter on the varsity basketball and softball teams there. She played in the very first Tournament of champions 30 years ago and was also All-State in softball, the sport she played in college at Kean, where she earned a bachelor of art’s degree in education.
Pizzano, who was the softball coach from 1995-2010 and led the Tigers to the Union County Tournament championship game in 2007 and 2009, has been teaching special education and history at Linden since her first year there as a teacher in 1994-1995.
“I’ve always had a love for teaching special needs children,” Pizzano said. “My mom was a secretary and worked for a child study team that directly worked with handicap children. It was there when I was with my mom at work that I was drawn to it.”
As much as guiding a sports team to a victory, Pizzano finds the challenge of educating those students with special needs just as satisfying.
“I love it,” Pizzano said. “They are given the opportunity to learn in the classroom.
“We have a resource room with 12 kids and an inclusive classroom with regular education kids and the special needs children. They’re all learning the same things. I get to be very creative in my lessons.”
As a student-athlete at Union Catholic, Pizzano played basketball for Kathy Matthews and softball for Shelly Jaques.
Matthews just completed her 43rd season at the helm of the Vikings and two years ago became only the fourth girls’ basketball coach in New Jersey to attain 700 victories.
“She is simply one of the best in the business,” Pizzano said.
The 1988-1989 Vikings won the Union County Tournament championship – which was the fourth in a row for UC – and then captured the Non-Public, Group A state championship – which was the program’s third straight.
The Vikings then entered the very first Tournament of Champions as the fourth seed. UC defeated fifth-seeded Sterling 42-39 in the quarterfinals and then knocked off top-seeded Bloomfield – the Group 4 state champion – 62-46 in the semifinals. UC fell to Group 1 Hoffman 45-43 in overtime in the final.
UC’s starting five consisted of Cheryl Cop, Pizzano, Tia Manhardt, Judy Stair and Cindy Brennan. Another key player off the bench was Kinella Lester. Cop played at Rutgers, Manhardt at Boston College and Stair at Montclair State, all earning post-season honors.
“With Coach Matthews it was about winning, but it was also about making you a better person, fighting through adversity and instituting family – those are the things that stuck with me,” said Pizzano, who grew up in Rahway while attending the Scotch Plains parochial school.
Jaques was also Pizzano’s math teacher.
“I struggled with math,” Pizzano said. “I was also a catcher, but Coach Jaques said I was not going to play catcher and moved me to third base.
“She said that with my arm and my reflexes that I would be playing third. I struggled in the beginning, but then learned to love to play the position.”
Pizzano, 47, was also a key player on UC’s 1989 softball squad that defeated two-time defending champion Union 4-2 in the UCT final. That is still UC’s only softball UCT title. Union went on to win the Group 4 state championship that season, but the Vikings were Union County champions.
“We were like a family,” said Pizzano, now a resident of Sayreville and who was and still is a big Los Angeles Dodgers fan. “During home games Coach Jaques would not allow us to watch the opponent warming up. We hid behind cars.
“We also had cupcakes before every home game. That was another ritual.”
Pizzano’s oldest son, Drew, is a freshman at the College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station. He is there on an academic scholarship, studying forensic science. Drew is also playing baseball for the Division 3 school.
Younger son Anthony is a junior at Sayreville High and was a member of the team’s 2018 South, Group 5 state championship squad.
NEW JERSEY STATE COACHES ASSOCIATION (NJSCA)
HALL OF FAME – CLASS OF 2019
Peter Anzelone, West Milford, Baseball
Robert Auriemma, Brick Township, Ice Hockey
Herb Bacon, Pennsville Memorial, Softball
Jeremy Beardsley, Montgomery, Girls Soccer
Mark Bramble, Marlboro, Athletic Trainer
Jason Cannici, Dumont, Baseball
William Chesney, Ramsey, Baseball and Bowling
Lou DeLisio, Cliffside Park, Wrestling
Jeffrey DeNick, Moorestown, Boys Swimming
Dennis Devaney, St. Rose, Boys Basketball
Siobhan Devlin, Ridge, Girls Golf and Field Hockey
Frank Donohue, Palisades Park, Cross Country and Track
Kurt Fenchel, Irvington, Basketball
Irv Gosman, Vineland, Basketball and Golf
Richard Kelly, Fort Lee, Boys Basketball
Greg Kelly, New Milford, Girls Track and Cross Country
Gerald Labenski, Wood-Ridge, Baseball
Kathy Luckey, Westfield, Girls Tennis
Bobby Mannino, Triton Regional, Girls Soccer
Kevin McEvoy, East Brunswick, Track
Jamie McGroarty, Eastern and Delsea; Girls Soccer and Softball
Chet Olinger, Collingswood, Tennis
Rob Osieja, Irvington, Boys Soccer
William Pavlak, South Plainfield, Wrestling
Cherie Lynn Pizzano, Linden, Bowling
Ed Rendzio, Wood-Ridge and Waldwick; Basketball
Lou Rettino*, Union, Football
Mike Ryan, Hasbrouck Heights, Cross Country and Track
Kevin Sabella, River Dell, Ramsey and Mahwah; Soccer and Ice Hockey
Willard Schulte, South Plainfield, Basketball
William Sheppard, Cherry Hill East, Swimming
Michael Sheridan, St. Mary’s, Football
Donna Slenkamp, Pitman, Tennis
Tracie Smith, Edison, Bowling
Zack Valentine, Woodbury, Football
Sean Walsh, North Hunterdon, Cross Country and Track
Emil Wandishin, Ewing, Boys Basketball
John Ziemba, Fort Lee and Emerson; Boys Basketball and Girls Volleyball