Middletown coach, pioneer of women’s athletics, wins national award recognizing 45-year career

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MIDDLETOWN — Even with national recognition ahead, longtime Middletown teacher and coach Deb Petruzzello nods and waves respectfully.

“What’s that all about?” she wanted to know.

Well, the National High School Athletic Coaches Association has given enough thought to Petruzzello’s 45-year career of coaching and inspiring young women through athletics to bestow its prestigious Kathy Holloway Women of Inspiration Award. The award recognizes an individual for historic contributions to the growth of sports for female athletes and coaches, particularly at the high school level.

Just the second recipient after Holloway, a former NHSACA president and longtime Louisiana basketball coach, Petruzzello will be celebrated June 21 at the association’s convention in Altoona, Iowa.

“It’s definitely exciting, but I’m doing something I love doing,” Petruzzello said earlier this week after working another track meet at Middletown High. “I just do things that I like to do. Nationally, I don’t know how to take it. I do not know what to say. My sister says, ‘Why don’t you just say thank you?’ »

And then she did just that.

“It’s overwhelming and exciting because someone thinks what you’re doing means something,” Petruzzello said. “As a coach you don’t think that way. You just think it gives kids opportunities to do something and be better at something and learn to be better people. I hope that you impact the way they think and grow and how they are better people and better citizens, and you do that through sport.

Petruzzello, 69, who was inducted into the Connecticut High School Coaches Hall of Fame in 2014, attended Woodrow Wilson High School and was studying at Penn State when Title IX was enacted in 1972. Intramural sports were its outlet. during the day.

She returned to Middletown after earning her education degree and began coaching in 1977 as women’s athletics began to take off. Just five years later, after gradual success as a program in city and state circles, Woodrow Wilson’s track team won a state championship.

“When a group of girls came up to me and said, ‘We want to have a track team. Will you be our coach?’, I said, ‘Hell yeah,'” Petruzzello recalled. guys have had a team for so long and reaped all the benefits for so long, it was about time we could do it.

“My sister and I would approach and grab kids who weren’t doing anything. We really beat the bushes for these kids who weren’t athletes who had nothing before. We wanted them to have the experience and the benefits of sport, this sporting “family”, working on goals, learning about teamwork, learning that you have to train to improve, because they don’t had never had this opportunity before.

“And they loved it.”

Petruzzello coached the women’s team at Wilson and then Middletown High for 35 years before retiring as a physical education and health teacher in 2011. She remains involved in the program while overseeing sports teams at Beman Middleschool.

“Deb is an exceptional coach who has impacted many athletes throughout her career,” said Fred Balsamo, athletic director of Wilson and Middletown after the merger for the first half of her career. “She was ahead of her time years ago and was instrumental in the development of Middletown’s track program and the Middletown Invitational. This award is well deserved and sincerely long overdue.

Former colleagues Hank Hiller and Rich Rosek expressed similar sentiments. They couldn’t remember a day when Petruzzello wasn’t trying to get a young adult’s best effort somehow.

“Deb was unique,” ​​said Hiller, who first met Petruzzello when he was a student in his physical education class at Wilson in the late 1960s. “She was always doing something. She did a bit of everything as a coach and everything she did was well thought out, well done and honest. You won’t find a more honest person. The children liked her because she was so frank with them.

“And she was such a good coach, especially in the early days of the women’s athletic movement, and she still is. She was at the forefront of the rise of women’s athletics. The kids trusted her. And instead of rolling the ball, she just didn’t teach a sport, she taught life. The kids learned the sport, but they learned more about themselves and what is right and what is wrong, thanks to Deb.

Rosek, who coached the Wilson and Middletown boys’ track teams for roughly the length of time Petruzzello coached the girls, said she was “the perfect role model” for young women.

“She set such high standards for her daughters. She always wanted them to do their best and she knew which buttons to push, and the girls responded to her,” Rosek said. “And all she wanted them to do, if they were having an event, was run a tenth of a second faster or jump an inch farther. It was ‘do your best and good things will happen’.

The kids also asked Petruzzello for his attorney, Rosek said. She listened and put the right notes in a given situation.

“She was always there for them,” he said. “I’ve always seen her put her arm around a girl and say, ‘What’s wrong? How can I help you?’ To me, that’s what a coach needs to be able to do. It’s not just your performance on the court. You need to be there for a young athlete who needs help in some way. another.

“The other thing I enjoyed working with Deb was a burst of energy, she always had a smile on her face. Her girls’ teams wanted to be as good as us and the boys’ teams wanted to be as good as us. good than the girls. She was tough, fair and always made the kids happy. There are so many young girls in the town of Middletown who have a connection with her.

Petruzzello knew she had the strength to be a teacher within her when she took piano lessons and felt the desire to teach her siblings the music she was learning to play.

“I always pushed myself,” she said. “My brother and my sisters accompanied me to my piano lessons and they listened to me play all the time. They were simple songs, but I taught them how to play the piano. I thought, ‘Shoot, it’s cool.’ Even when I was in college and in the masters program, I would come home and be so excited about what I was learning that I would teach them what I had just learned. sport, so it’s cool to teach sport? And you do it in different ways, and that was the best part, to teach the same thing in different ways so everyone gets it.

When Rosek came up with the idea for a Middletown Track and Field Invitational in the 1990s, he recognized it wouldn’t have been possible without Petruzzello’s partnership. The meet, held the first Friday and Saturday of each May, features both junior and varsity varsity competitions and attracts schools from across the state.

“She was instrumental in the success of this encounter,” he said. “We were there together to figure out what we needed to do. She had a lot of great ideas and managed to convince many schools to take part in the women’s events. She was a problem solver. If I needed help with anything, she would. It became our two meetings, the meeting of Deb Petruzzello and Rich Rosek. It was always fun with her and we laughed so much.

“It’s a perfect reward for Deb,” Rosek added, “because she was so inspiring. She turned the girls into young girls and showed them how to be tough, and she made everyone competitive. A part of life is what kind of competitor are you Can you grind it It won’t always work for you but she managed to make these girls recover from any difficulty or problem that they had. She was always there for them.”

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