Linden High School bowling coach Cherie Pizzano has been selected for induction into the New Jersey Scholastic Coaches Association Hall of Fame. She is the sixth coach – and first woman – inducted from Linden.
By Gary Miller
When most people look at Cherie Pizzano’s coaching career, they see the rings.
They see the long list of titles, the trophies, the awards, and the elite athletes that have come through her championship bowling program at Linden High School over the past 19 seasons.
But she sees it differently. She sees the faces of boys and girls whom she has treated like family and whom she has helped improve and to grow into successful adults.
“The best part about coaching is not the wins and the losses,” Pizzano said. “It’s seeing your athletes grow and develop into productive members of society. Those bonds that I’ve formed with those athletes, that’s what indicates to me what a good coach or what a good teacher is. That’s my legacy.
“Winning championships is absolutely amazing. I always want to win, and I demand excellence, but it’s those relationships that I have forged with those kids.”
Because of nearly two decades of successes on and off the alleys, Pizzano has been chosen for induction into the New Jersey Scholastic Coaches Association Hall of Fame. She will be honored March 24 at an induction dinner in Princeton.
Pizzano said she was shocked by the selection.
“To know that I’m going into a Hall of Fame where I see my idols is so humbling,” she said. “It’s so overwhelming that you almost can’t even believe it. I know of other coaches that are in there and I know how much of an impact they’ve had on sports in New Jersey.”
Athletic Director Steven Viana said he was “delighted” at Pizzano’s well-deserved honor.
“Coach Pizzano has been a mainstay in the Linden athletic program for over 25 years,” he said. “She has built teams and relationships that span the decades. Talk to any one of her players and they will all tell you the same thing, that Coach Pizzano knows how to pull the best out of every single individual on her team.”
Pizzano is the sixth coach – and the first woman – inducted into the Hall of Fame from Linden Public Schools. The others are Edward Cooper (inducted in 1967), Joseph Martino (1977), Frank Catale (1985), Wilbur Aikens (2002) and Phil Colicchio (2011).
Pizzano’s résumé as bowling coach is impressive since taking over the program in 2000. Her teams have an overall record of 228-65. The Tigers won sectional titles in 2005, 2008, 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2018; Union County titles in 2003, 2005, 2015, 2018 and 2019; and Watchung Conference titles in 2004, 2005, 2015 and 2018.
This past season, the Tigers finished at 14-3, capped off a 43-match winning streak that stretched back two seasons, and won the Union County Tournament. They may have added to the hardware in the states, but a key bowler, sophomore James Fitz, was struck by a fluke injury. The rest of the varsity quintet included senior Darius Lewis, and juniors Anthony Golabek, Matt Soto, and Justin Peters.
Pizzano deflects a lot of the credit for her success to her bowlers and support system.
“I have been very blessed to have a multitude of talented athletes who work very hard,” she said. “Plus, the dedication and devotion of families, parents who have had my back, no matter what. Getting up at 6 o’clock for a tournament on a Saturday. I’ve always had the most amazing support from the bowling family.”
Viana said Pizzano is being modest.
“Coach Pizzano is as unassuming as they come,” he said. “She doesn’t look for the spotlight even though her well-documented successes speak for themselves. This honor could not be bestowed upon a more deserving individual.”
Individually, Pizzano was named Star-Ledger Bowling Coach of the Year for North Jersey Section 2 three years in a row, 2003-05, and NJSCA Bowling Coach of the Year in 2007.
“We are incredibly fortunate to have Ms. Pizzano as a coach and teacher at Linden High School,” said Superintendent Danny A. Robertozzi. “The care that she shows for her athletes on the bowling team and for all her students make her a Hall of Famer on a daily basis. She is one of the best coaches we’ve ever seen in Linden and is a perfect choice for this honor. Congratulations!”
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Upon induction, Pizzano will join two Hall of Fame coaches who have had a great impact on her personally. The first was Kathy Matthews, the longtime basketball coach at Union Catholic, where Pizzano graduated in 1989 after starring on the basketball and softball teams. Her basketball team played in the first Tournament of Champions final in her senior year, losing in double overtime.
To illustrate Pizzano’s notorious competitive streak, that loss still sticks with her.
“Thirty years later and I can’t let go of it,” she said. “My coach laughs at me. She says, ‘You’re so intense.’ I say, ‘Coach, I’ll never forget it for the rest of my life.’ It can go on my tombstone.”
The other Hall of Famer to impact Pizzano was Linden’s own Joseph Martino, who after coaching went on to be athletic director, Linden High School principal, and superintendent. He hired Pizzano to work at LHS in 1994.
“When I got hired here, I didn’t know Joe at all,” recalled Pizzano, a native of Rahway. “But that summer, I got a phone call from Joe. He said, ‘Are you the girl who played for Union Catholic with the high hair?” – They always remembered me for my hair! As they still remember me for my hair! – But he said, ‘You’re that basketball and softball player from UC, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir, that is me.’ And he said, ‘Well, you’re going to come to the high school. I’ve got plans for you.’ Then in my first year here, they made me the softball coach.”
Pizzano coached softball at LHS from 1994 to 2010. She was tabbed in 2000 to coach bowling without ever having applied for the job. Joe Quinn, an all-state bowler for Linden at the time, pushed for her to get the vacant job. They knew each other because Pizzano bowled with members of Quinn’s family, but she didn’t know that he asked for her to be coach.
She said she was called into the office of Principal Barry Black, along with Athletic Director Steve Yesinko.
“They started asking me bowling questions,” she recalled. “They’re asking me about surfaces on lanes, surfaces of balls, what’s this, what’s that. And I was answering them. Then they said, ‘You’ve got the job.’ ”
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Pizzano’s main job at LHS is that of a special education teacher of history.
“They’re very similar skills,” she said. “Sometime it can be high intensity, stressful, trying to adapt yourself to motivate all different types of learners and all different types of athletes. Knowing the strengths of your students in the classroom and knowing the strengths of your athletes on the lanes.”
“Coach” is part of everything she does. She loves to read coaching biographies and sees Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski and former Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi as her role models.
“That’s partly why I became a teacher, not only because I had a love for special-needs children,” said Pizzano, who graduated with a degree in education from Kean College, where she also starred on the softball field, “but I knew it would give me an avenue someday, if I was lucky enough, to give back to athletics and to kids the way my coaches gave to me.”
And, of course, there’s her competitive nature.
“I always tell my bowlers, ‘There’s a fine line between confident and arrogant. You need to walk that line for me,’ ” she said. “They’re still young, but they gave it to me when we needed it. Like in the county final, they were screaming and high-fiving.”
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Pizzano has considered retiring from coaching, to have more free time and to concentrate more on her own sons and their athletic pursuits.
But her love of her athletes keeps pulling her back.
“I was ready to retire a few years ago,” she said. “I thought, ‘OK, I’ve had a good career. It’s time. I want to breathe a little bit, to have some free time.’ But when I got that new group that are juniors now, it’s like I fell in love all over again. So now I can’t leave, I have to stay to see them graduate. And then Fitz comes! And his mother says, ‘You’re not leaving!’
“So I think, here we go again,” she laughed. “Now I’m locked in again for four years!”