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Making the switch: Coaches discuss going from pro/college level to leading high school programs

Making the switch: Coaches discuss going from pro/college level to leading high school programs

Jobs are more similar than not, but differences are significant
Making the switch: Coaches discuss going from pro/college level to leading high school programs
Burnt Hills head coach John Battaglino previously coached at UAlbany.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

His team’s roster is small, plus it was missing a couple players.

So Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake girls’ lacrosse head coach John Battaglino scrapped the plan he’d made up for a practice last week and adjusted on the fly. When needed, he entered himself into the action to demonstrate a point or to provide a quick break for one of his players.

“I like helping develop kids and young people,” Battaglino said. “Here, you can tweak things with them before they have bad habits.”

The “here” is at the high school level, which Battaglino has returned to this spring after coaching the sport at the college level for most of the last 15 years. Battaglino — who served as head coach for the University at Albany women’s lacrosse program for a run of seven seasons starting in 2011 — is one of a number of current area high school coaches who previously worked at the college or professional level.

More is the same than different when comparing the levels, Battaglino said, but the differences are significant. The athletes are younger and require more teaching. Concepts and drills need further explanation. Game-planning and scouting are still important, but cannot be as nuanced for a variety of reasons. Hours spent on recruiting can be used for other tasks.

Oh — and, sometimes, the kids aren’t going to show up on time . . . and it’s not their fault.

That was one of the first lessons La Salle football head coach John Audino — who coached college football, mostly at Union College, for decades — learned during his first season coaching the Cadets last year. In the first week of his team’s preseason, Audino couldn’t help noticing how players frequently showed up a few minutes late to early-morning summer practices. Laughing, Audino remembered how at the end of that first week, his assistant coaches reminded him that his new players weren’t just a walk away from a nearby dormitory and most needed parents to drive them to practice on their way to work.

“That was one of those things I’d never even thought about,” Audino said.

There were other things along those lines that Audino, the all-time winningest head coach for Union football, needed to figure out. Most of them still make him laugh — like the time he tried, unsuccessfully, to call for a midday meeting with several players on a school day.

“Well,” one of the players told Audino, “Coach, at 1 o’clock, I’m in geography class.”

On the practice field, Audino largely kept things similar to how he handled them when he coached at the college level. He noticed, though, there was a need to spend more time working with his players as a whole offense or defense at the expense of some time for individual skill work. La Salle’s varsity team had a seven-person coaching staff dedicated to it, plus six more coaches working at the program’s lower levels, and Audino said he heavily leaned on his assistants during a season that saw the Cadets reach the postseason.

“I listened and I had a lot of fun because I learned a lot of new stuff,” Audino said. “And, next year, I’ll be a better coach for my kids than I was this past year.”

Ballston Spa softball head coach Amanda Fifield remembers the progress she made from one year to the next early in her switch from coaching at Clinton County Community College to the high school level. Fifield is in her seventh season leading the Scotties’ varsity program, but she initially went from coaching at Clinton County CC to coaching Ballston Spa’s JV team. At one of her first JV practices, she realized how different things were going to be with her new team — “Oh, what did I sign up for?” — when she called for a drill to start and nothing happened besides her players looking around, confused, since they’d never heard of the exercise.

“At the college level, you didn’t have to explain it. You just called for it, and the girls knew what to do,” Fifield said. “The girls were great, though. They were eager to learn.”

Parents, of course, are eager to be involved, too. That was something Fifield quickly realized would be different.

“Honestly, the biggest thing was parents. I didn’t have to worry about parents at the college level. No ifs, ands or buts about anything. It was all a coach’s decision,” said Fifield, who has turned the Ballston Spa softball program into one of the area’s strongest. “So that was definitely an interesting component for me.”

“In college,” Audino said, “you see the parents before or after the game — and that was it.”

While making the move from a higher level to coaching a high school team comes with its challenges, it’s also a rewarding move for many.

After coaching at Bethlehem High School for nearly a decade, Battaglino coached at the college level for more than a decade between roles at Syracuse and UAlbany. He worked with the Princeton women’s team last fall and considered a permanent return to the college game, but ended up choosing to coach in the high school ranks partially because of the balance within his life that role can allow him to have.

“Coaching in college — that’s your whole day,” Battaglino, 55, said. “It’s spent figuring how to beat Team A, B or C. Here, you have another career going, too. . . . You’ll have a practice plan, but when you get [to practice], it’s hasn’t been your full focus the entire day. You’ve had to deal with other things throughout the day — so have the kids, too — but I think that’s healthy. [Coaching] is not all you’re thinking about.”

Robby Hisert cited similar reasons for wanting to become a high school coach after spending several years coaching college and professional baseball. Now in his second year leading the Amsterdam varsity baseball team, Hisert previously was an assistant coach for several seasons at Southern Vermont College before spending a year coaching with the St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate — the Memphis Redbirds — in 2016. Within that same span of time, Hisert also spent summers coaching with the Amsterdam Mohawks of the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League and the Bridgeport Bluefish of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball Clubs.

Working for those teams was thrilling, Hisert said, but the schedule was hectic and forced him to miss too much time away from his family. When the opportunity arrived to become the head coach at his alma mater, the 2003 Amsterdam High School graduate jumped at the chance to get involved at a level that holds special appeal to him.

“There’s just something different about your high school team,” Hisert said. “Those are the kids you grew up playing with. These are the kids you played T-ball with. There’s that level of camaraderie that you’re not going to match at any other level.”

And?

“The travel is so much less,” Hisert said.

Traveling several days a week from his home in Saratoga to Princeton last fall to help with that team’s workouts confirmed for Battaglino that he still wanted to coach, but wanted to have to travel less to do it. Presented with the opportunity to coach at Burnt Hills, Battaglino said he jumped at the chance.

“I’ve always been impressed by Burnt Hills kids,” Battaglino said. “They have a certain toughness to them, and I like those kinds of kids.”

He likes, too, the chance to stay involved with the game — and, more importantly, the chance to continue to help young people.

“That’s rewarding,” Battaglino said, “and I feel really good about that.”

Reach Michael Kelly at [email protected] or @ByMichaelKelly on Twitter.

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