Sports or No Sports, KP’s Pichel Maintains Proper Perspective
Jul 01, 2020 12:35PM
By Ken Hamwey, Staff Sports Writer
EDITOR’S NOTE: At Local Town Pages deadline, neither Governor Baker nor the Department of Education had yet to announce whether schools would open this fall.
Gary Pichel is one of the area’s most successful soccer coaches — whether it’s teaching the sport’s basics or emphasizing real-life lessons from athletics.
After eight seasons at the helm of the King Philip Regional girls soccer team, the 62-year-old Pichel has compiled some impressive statistics. But, it’s his 22 seasons with four teams that makes the Springfield native a breed apart.
Pichel coached at Nipmuc Regional (Mendon-Upton) for 10 years and led the Warriors to State championships in 2005 and 2006. After a year at Hudson Catholic and three more as an assistant at Fitchburg State, he joined the KP staff.
Pichel has amassed 212 career victories in his three stops at the high-school level (19 years) and he’s experienced only one losing season. That down year occurred in 2015 at KP when nine of his 11 starters were injured and unable to return. His KP squads have qualified for tourney play seven times in his eight seasons and last year’s contingent posted an 18-0 regular season record before bowing in the Sectional final.
The Warriors deepest advance in playoff soccer came in 2017 when KP lost to Westford Academy in the State semifinals. The Warriors have won two Hockomock League titles in the Kelly-Rex Division during his tenure.
All his success, however, pales in comparison to the wisdom the father of five offers in good or bad times. The COVID-19 pandemic puts an exclamation point on his perspective and his coaching philosophy.
“There’s lots of concerns that schools may not open this fall and that sports may be on hold,’’ he said. “This isn’t about KP soccer. It’s about losing our older generation—parents and grandparents—and children, too. The No. 1 priority is health and safety. Life, liberty and happiness are paramount for all Americans. Look what’s happened when there’s loss of life. Funerals services are limited and it’s like adding insult to injury. If family members are lost, relatives can’t mourn for them in the usual way.’’
Life lessons learned in athletics can be valuable later on and Pichel firmly believes that young athletes, although disappointed with the difficulties the pandemic has caused, can rise to the challenge. He rates overcoming adversity, developing strong character and helping others as keys to dealing with the virus.
“There’s a point in life when you have to realign your priorities,’’ he said. “In that case, what’s most important is caring for your family and fighting the pandemic the best you can. All sports take a back seat to life. At a time like this, we have to be humble. We’ve enjoyed prosperity, now we’ve all been humbled. The key is to reassess what’s important in your life.’’
If fall sports are off in September, Pichel will be disappointed. He’ll be down but not out.
“Whenever a soccer season ends, I start thinking about the next year and mull various ideas,’’ he noted. “I wait nine months for the season to start. In the off-season, I watch players compete in club soccer or summer leagues. Now, it’s like getting a flat tire in a race. The wind has been taken out of our sails. But, it’s all part of life. You have to deal with it because you have no choice.’’
Pichel is proceeding as if fall sports will occur but he thinks that if a spike in cases occurs, then the situation will change. “If there’s a second wave of cases, then schools opening on time may not happen and sports could be shut down until CDC (Center for Disease Control) guidance is available.’’
If there’s no KP sports, Pichel will be saddened, not just for seniors but for all classes.
“I’ve always looked forward to working with new seniors,’’ he said. “I’ll be heartbroken for them if they can’t compete. Many of them were looked at by colleges as juniors and will still be pursued by schools. Juniors, however, won’t get the chance to showcase their talents, and freshman and sophomores will miss the chance to compete on a varsity roster.’’
If sports, specifically soccer, get the green light, Pichel expects lots of changes.
“There probably won’t be any tackling,’’ he said. “And, heading 50-50 balls will be eliminated. Spacing will likely be the norm in locker-rooms, buses and bleachers. Handshakes will end and players would be required to bring their own water bottles. Hand-washing and sanitizing stations probably will be prevalent at practices and at games.’’
While he’s hopeful for a 2020 season and eager to open the campaign at Foxboro on Sept. 9, Pichel is acutely aware that his squad is far from complete. He knows that after losing nine seniors from last year’s team, he’s got seven returnees with different degrees of experience.
“We lost two great players in Chloe Lane and Avery Snead,’’ he said. “We’ll lack the depth we had last year but we still have a solid defense. Our strengths will be promising freshmen and jayvee candidates, athleticism and a high soccer IQ.’’
KP’s four senior captains will provide leadership and no doubt lead by example and by being vocal and supportive. They include midfielders Maeve Lawlor, Jenny Montville and Kiera Lindmark and center back Paige Varvarigos.
“Maeve reads the field well and is an accurate passer,’’ Pichel noted. “Jenny has speed and athleticism and Kiera has a fantastic left-footed shot and is aggressive to the ball. Paige is versatile. She can play any backfield position and she’s technically sound.’’
Three other key components include sophomores Grace Lawler (center fullback) and Ella Pisani (midfielder) and junior Paulina Baczkowski (striker).
“Grace is our fastest player and she’s fearless,’’ Pichel indicated. “She’s one of the best backs in the league. Ella has a great shot and is an excellent passer. Paulina is quick and skilled at finishing a play and she can put the ball in the net.’’
When Pichel coached at Nipmuc, his teams dominated the Dual Valley Conference. His two daughters experienced championships.
“We won back-to-back State titles, Pichel said. “Kristine was on our first championship team and my daughter Courtney was a two-time State champ. Those titles helped both of them.’’
“Winning made a tremendous impact on them,’’ he said. “They still wear their jackets, sweatshirts and sweatpants. It meant so much to them. If they were faced with not playing because of a situation like we’re dealing with now, it would have been devastating and unfortunate. The ultimate joy I’ve had in soccer has been winning two State titles as a coach and a dad. But, we can’t lose sight of the big picture — acting in the best interests of the community, the state and the country. Health and safety are what’s most important.’’
Gary Pichel is well-versed in soccer but he’s also a shining example of how to deal with adversity and how to maintain perspective.