Apodaca: Coaches give more than time in Pilot Cup

The Pegasus School fifth- and sixth-grade boys gold soccer team took the field for its first Pilot Cup game Wednesday evening.

The players, clad in navy-colored shirts, looked excited — a little nervous, but definitely pumped up to square off against rival Mariners Christian in green.

But as the Pegasus boys got in position, my eyes were fixed on the team's two coaches as they called out: "Hey, let's pressure them!" "Don't be afraid to take shots!"

After play began, the Pegasus coaches kept up the banter, alternating between instructions — "Slide over in front of that guy!" — and encouragement — "It's all you. Nice, good job!"

It was obvious that the coaches understood well that the job required a deft combination of maturity, knowledge and empathy, and they handled the challenge like seasoned veterans — which makes it all the more impressive considering that the duo in charge is just a few years older than the players.

Meet Corona del Mar High School's Conor Roche and J Serra Catholic High School's Rusty Padia, both sophomores and varsity soccer players, and now both Pilot Cup coaches.

There is so much that I love about The Pilot Cup: the chance for elementary-age kids to bond with schoolmates; the fun family atmosphere and camaraderie; and the civic pride it fosters.

But there's another little-noticed yet equally wonderful aspect to the weeklong soccer tournament, which concludes Sunday. For some teenage volunteers it's an opportunity to give back to the community that has served them well.

Year after year, at many of the elementary schools participating in The Pilot Cup, parents fall all over themselves in a scramble to sign up as coaches. Inevitably, though, there are some teams that need or desire others for the job. That's where the high school kids come in.

There are no records kept on exactly how many of the coaches of the 207 teams participating in The Pilot Cup this year are teenagers. Just from asking around I was able to identify about 20 of these kid-coaches, and I'm sure there are more — too many, unfortunately, to give equal attention to all of them in this column.

But to all these young people, be assured that your efforts and generosity are greatly appreciated.

Of course, these teenagers are motivated to volunteer in part because of the community service hours they earn for the gigs, which they can credit toward their graduation requirements and list on college applications.

Yet it's also apparent that they care far more about helping out the younger kids than they do about bulking up their resumes.

"I love them all," said Mater Dei High School sophomore Chelsea Chiapuzio, referring to the boys and girls at Sonora Elementary School whom she coaches along with other Mater Dei and Newport Harbor High School students. The teens proposed the idea as a way to show their gratitude to Sonora for allowing their club team to use the elementary school's field for practices.

The teenagers also find that they learn and grow along with their players. Conor, one of the Pegasus coaches, told me of the new respect he has for the adults who have coached him over the years.

"It's weird to be on the other side of things," he said. "There's a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff I didn't know about," that require strong organizational and communication skills.

He's been pleasantly surprised at the reception he and Rusty were given by the younger kids when practices began about a month ago.

"I didn't know if they'd listen to us," he said. "I've been really impressed."

Conor also didn't expect to care quite so deeply about winning, but the old competitive spirit kicked into high gear as the tournament got underway.

At Wednesday's game, Conor and Rusty stood guard on the sidelines, anxiously clenching their fists. When Mariners Christian took a 2-0 lead, the coaches kept the patter positive, issuing strategic advice and counseling the players not to get frustrated.

Sure enough, Pegasus came back and tied the score. But with less than a minute left, Mariners Christian had a shot on goal. Pegasus' hardworking goalie, who had several saves earlier in the game, couldn't reach the ball this time. It flew into the net; Mariners Christian won, 3-2.

After the referee blew his whistle to signal the game's end, the young coaches met their dejected players on the field. They didn't let the mood last long.

"You guys showed a lot of heart," Rusty told them, sounding every bit the proud but worldly-wise old hand.

There were back slaps all around as the coaches reminded the kids that if they won the next game they'd continue on in the tournament.

It was not to be.

Conor and Rusty called me the next day with the news that Lincoln Elementary School had eliminated Pegasus in a 5-0 drubbing.

"We could tell they tried hard, so we told them to keep their heads up," said Conor.

Besides, he added, most of the team is in fifth grade, so there should be lots of experienced players returning next year. He and Rusty are hoping for the chance to coach them again.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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