By Jessie Sawyer
Avon girls varsity cross country coach and Xavier High School graduate Albert Dadario has been named CIAC Outstanding Girls Cross Country Coach for 2012 after 17 years of coaching the high school program in town.
That’s an award that Dadario said belongs to the girls as much as him.
“I’m riding this wave due to them,” said Dadario, an East Haddam resident who also works as an Avon High School special education teacher. “I’ve been the same coach all these years. I just got a great bunch of girls.... Without the girls, I don’t care what kind of coach you are, you need it.”
Under Dadario’s leadership, the Avon girls varsity cross country team won Class MM coming off a back-to-back NCCC victory this past fall. Last year, the Falcons placed second at the state championship. Following a 28-meet winning streak, the varsity squad placed second at the State Open championship and advanced to the New Englands for first time as a team during Dadario’s career.
Middletown residents may recognize Dadario from his visits to the Northern Middlesex YMCA, where he regularly works out.
Avon Athletic Coordinator Newell Porch nominated Dadario for the award. He said that the work ethic of the team is a testament to good coaching. Dadario was one of the first coaches Porch met when he came to the high school in early 2011.
“I was very impressed with how hard these kids worked,” Porch said. “Al gets them motivated.”
Dadario said he takes an encouraging approach to coaching. He said he is not the “authoritarian” type of coach focused on runners clocking a certain time for their first mile.
“I’m serious, but I’m not serious. I don’t yell at them,” Dadario said. “I try to make them feel comfortable with who they are.... You can be the most talented person in the world. If you’re not motivated…you won’t get there.”
Dadario has helped create a positive running community at the school that makes many feel welcome.
His runners know him well and strive to make him proud of them. Many of the girls are also academically talented and that’s something that’s important to him.
“They’re smart girls, motivated girls. I use that,” Dadario said. "I want them to feel at home as a family every day that they’re there."
Cross-country is in competition with sports like soccer and field hockey for gaining participation in the fall.
““It’s hard. Not everyone really wants to be a cross-country runner,” he said. “There’s no glamour in it.”
But within the past few years, the recent winning culture the program has contributed to more people choosing it as a primary sport. The girls visit the middle school to talk about the team to drum up interest in joining the team by the time they reach high school.
“You’re only as good as your next group of kids coming in and you can’t take that for granted,” Dadario said.
Athletes’ achievements after high school are also important measures of success to him as a coach.
“What’s most gratifying for me is the bonds I’ve had with kids for 17 years,” Dadario said. “When you see where they’re at later in life, just their dreams coming true, it makes me feel good.”
Dadario’s Route to Coaching, Running and Teaching
Dadario didn’t grow up running in his hometown of Portland, but he did coach baseball there. By high school in the 1970s, he was a defensive tackle for the Xavier football team. In 1971, his team became the first to go undefeated in the history of the Middletown all-boys Catholic prep school. His team will be inducted into the Middletown Hall of Fame on Jan. 31, 2013.
Dadario graduated from the University of Connecticut in 1978, majoring in education and social studies and earning a sixth-year degree in administration.
When teaching wasn’t immediately panning out, he became a construction worker after college. He was one of the union laborers who resurfaced the Arrigoni Bridge that passes between Middletown and Portland the last time before it was renovated again last year. He later got his master’s degree and certification in special education at Southern Connecticut State University.
Dadario's introduction to running came in an unexpected way. He became involved in a running club his former boss started at the Elm Crest psychiatric hospital in Portland. He remembers running around the perimeter of the hospital and still runs in Portland.
“I started running religiously in 1981 with that program, and I’ve continued to run ever since,” Dadario said.
Dadario found out about the opening there from one of the psychiatric hospital's administrators, who served with him on the Portland Board of Education. From 1981-86, he went from mental health worker to teaching paraprofessional before he was hired as a history teacher at Chapman School, Elm Crest's adolescent school. He served as head teacher, similar to a principal, there from 1986 to 1996.
Former Avon High School principal Mike Buckley, who Dadario knew through the Middletown YMCA, told him about a special education teaching opening in Avon in 1995. While he wasn’t hired then, he was when the position reopened in 1996. The athletic director at the time hired him as head girls cross country coach when the previous coach resigned to become an administrator elsewhere.
The same investment he has in his athletes’ futures shows in his passion for special education. He helps the students work through their struggles make something out of themselves.
“I think it’s rewarding to help them get through high school,” Dadario said. “I like the challenge.”
Dadario also coaches indoor track in the winter – a program that won three state championships for Avon High 1963-66, went on hiatus and then started again about five to six years ago. The track program, which Dadario coaches in the spring, celebrated its 50th anniversary last season.
A committee reviewing the candidates factored season records and All Conference and All State athletes into the decision.
Dadario said that there’s still room for improvement after the strong season. Avon graduate Claire Smith was the last individual to qualify for New Englands in 2008 and the girls are driven to qualify as a team for the second time in program history next year.
“The weather cooperated with us this year. We only missed a couple days because of Hurricane Sandy,” Dadario said. “The kids were so eager to go [to New Englands] that even with those days off they trained hard.”
In particular, he praised senior Kate McIntyre, juniors Rachael Rosow, Sara Stokesbury, Madi Zapaca and Hannah Fusaro, sophomores Molly Hamel and Madi McHugh, and freshman Ryley Higgins. Rosow and Stokesbury earned All Conference honors – as well as Hamel, McHugh and Higgins – and were named to the All State First Team this fall.
“Rachael and Sara Stokesbury have basically been the whole key to this team,” he said.
Dadario may be the one receiving the Coach of the Year award, but it is in his nature to turn the focus back to the team.
“I’m very honored and flattered to get award I’ve gotten and the victories,” Dadario said. “This is their time. It’s not my time.”