STAMFORD — Dana Serricchio paused for 30 seconds when asked yesterday to find a major difference between Melissa Giordano, Stamford High School’s first-year softball coach, and her predecessor, Tony Esposito.
Serricchio finally gave an answer: “I can’t think of one.”
Age and gender aside, I can provide a major difference: these words you are reading. Esposito, who stepped down last spring after a highly distinguished career noted for hanging banners in the gym and an ability to develop players that was exceeded only by his surrender to superstition, would never have granted me access to write this story, not with the Black Knights riding a streak of nine wins in 11 games prior to yesterday’s annual city battle with Westhill.
And when the Vikings were trailing late, I feared the reception I would get afterward from Giordano, who does indeed share more traits than not with her mentor. The first thing Giordano said after the Black Knights rallied for a 6-5 extra-inning win was temporarily regretting her decision to let me write a story on her and the team.
Truth be told, a loss yesterday and my presence would have been a mere coincidence. But the outcome was a reflection of the job done by Giordano, the former Stamford star who is deserving of strong consideration for FCIAC Coach of the Year, and her players, who have rebounded from a four-game losing streak after an opening-day win to move into fourth place in the standings heading into the final week of the regular season.
“The first four games we really didn’t play the way we wanted to, but we started getting closer and everything started to build up and we worked together,” said Serricchio, who delivered a key hit in yesterday’s winning rally and is one of the league’s top shortstops.
Credit Giordano with keeping her players’ confidence up until they got the experience to handle adversity like they faced yesterday. Many of Stamford’s key players are underclassmen. Kim Saunders, the No. 1 pitcher, is a freshman.
“There was pressure but the older girls made me feel welcome,” Saunders said. “In the beginning of the year we were a little rusty and now we can communicate better and we trust each other.”
It was fun to watch Giordano on the bench and the third-base line, now in control of her own program. Another big difference: you no longer hear the word beauty shouted after a Stamford pitcher makes a delivery anywhere near the plate, Esposito’s way of trying to ensure a strike call.
Giordano laughed when told Serricchio treated my question like a tricky curveball.
“Really? I like to think I stay a little calmer than he does,” Giordano said with a smile. “I used to make fun of him, “Cous, you’re a little crazy right now, calm down. But now I’m looking at myself and every time I get a free moment I’m thinking about a lineup or what we have to do or something about softball. I get it.”
Giordano has always had it. Her resume should be stamped with the stitches from a softball. A 2005 Stamford graduate whose defense at shortstop was the equal to her bat, Giordano earned All-FCIAC honors her final three seasons and was named All-State the last two. At Marist, Giordano was named to the All-MAAC team all four seasons, climaxing with Player of the Year honors as a senior, when she led the league in batting average (.429), hits (66), runs (42), doubles (19) and on-base percentage (.491), while finishing with eight home runs and 21 RBIs.
Giordano played for a year in Italy, got her Masters in physical education, returned to Marist to coach for two years and then came back to her hometown and joined Esposito’s staff for three years. When Esposito retired last year, there was no question who would get the job.
“I love it,” Giordano said. “We have a lot of fun together and that’s important, that they continue to have fun. I’ve had a lot of different coaches and Espo was one of the best coaches I’ve had. He took it very seriously but he made it more about all of us being together and having fun together, and some of the coaches I had weren’t like that. I don’t want to take the fun of the game away from the girls.”
There is no secret that softball in this area is in trouble, with lacrosse currently the shinier toy. The quality of play is in a continual downswing. Stamford was always one of the state’s hotbeds, but Westhill is going to have its first losing season under Tom Pia and Trinity Catholic did not have enough players to field a team. Schools are struggling and failing to maintain junior varsity programs.
And then the Black Knights were sitting at 1-4 after reaching the state semifinals a year ago.
“Obviously I wanted to do better but I was realistic about what was going on,” Giordano said. “We’re trying to get people more experience and it doesn’t happen right away. It’s all about working hard and that’s what they learned. They came to practice day in and day out, they didn’t put their heads down, we kind of talked through it. They trust each other, they trust us.”
Asked the biggest difference in transitioning from an assistant to head coach, Giordano said, “I think everybody looking to me and having to make the decisions. You can have the opinions you want but until you are in that position and have to make that decision, you might not have made the right decision so you don’t know how it feels. I always put pressure on myself. This is a game I’ve grown up playing. Espo was my coach and I know what this program is all about. Not so much pressure but just I take pride in this program and pride to continue his traditions and what he set here, and make our own.”
The Black Knights have played their way into contention when the FCIAC Tournament begins a week from tomorrow. Giordano said the keys to success are simple.
“Stay together, stay loose, have fun and go one game at a time,” Giordano said. “Don’t look ahead.”
Whatever happens the rest of this season, Giordano is in an ideal situation that is a perfect fit. Life happens, but will anyone be surprised if Giordano is still on the bench three decades from now, league and state titles on her resume, like Esposito respected not just for being a Stamford hero after having coaching success in the city where they once were star athletes, but praised more for helping young girls on the path to becoming fine women?
“It’s so nice to come back here, where I know people and they’re very supportive,” Giordano said. “And to help girls where I grew up. I have a really good group of girls. I teach here so I see them in school and just to see them welcome me as their head coach. It gets you excited and how can you not want to be here?”