Matt Rizzo to lead Tiger boys’ lacrosse
MIDDLEBURY — Many members of the 2019 Middlebury Union High School varsity boys’ lacrosse team will remember their new head coach from when he taught them the basics of the sport in elementary school.
Another team member at the first spring practice, Tiger sophomore goalie Jack Rizzo, might recall seeing his coach earlier that day over, say, a bowl of Wheaties, at their Weybridge home.
That’s because Jack’s father, Matt Rizzo, a former local youth lacrosse coach, is taking over the high school program this spring. He replaces Brian Carpenter, who stepped down after three years during which the Tigers were consistently competitive.
The most relevant parts of Matt Rizzo’s résumé probably date back further than local club lacrosse, however.
Rizzo, now 46, grew up playing lacrosse in a small town not far from Rochester, N.Y. He later started at midfield for perennial NCAA Division III lacrosse power Denison College in Ohio, graduating in 1996, and then coached boys’ lacrosse at Chicago’s Glenbrook South High School for five years, winning a state title in 2000.
Rizzo describes his finding that coaching job as something of a happy accident. Unsure about a job, he was recruited to coach at Glenbrook just before his graduation.
“I graduated from Denison in December, packed up and moved to Chicago in January of ’97,” Rizzo said. “And I coached there for five years. It was incredible. I loved every minute of it. I didn’t plan on it, but it was great.”
Rizzo also laid the groundwork for his professional calling in Chicago.
While coaching he launched a foundation, with backing from some parents of his student-athletes, which helped inner-city athletes with the college admission, financial aid, and athletic recruiting process.
“Typically the kids we were working with were first-gen college kids. The families had no idea what college was or what a FAFSA form was or how to leverage kids’ athletic abilities to help them,” he said.
Rizzo said that experience with the foundation provided him the skills for his eventual career.
“Most of the people in my field fell into it, and I did, too,” he said. “In the five years I spent doing that I learned everything about raising money and (working with) boards.”
But first came a detour. His high school coaching experience convinced him he wanted to coach college lacrosse. He had met the University of Vermont coach in the summer camp circuit, and was offered a job as a volunteer assistant. Rizzo and wife Kelly moved to Vermont in the summer of 2001.
The job proved not to be a good fit.
“The volunteer assistant was on the road recruiting, fund-raising, giving parents tours, and copying papers. And I just wanted to coach. I wanted to work with kids,” Rizzo said. “It was a wonderful experience from the standpoint of finding out what I didn’t want to do.”
But both he and Kelly loved Vermont and wanted to make it their home, and that’s when Rizzo turned to his fundraising skills as a career. At one point he oversaw the Burlington Jazz Festival, and eventually he made his way to Middlebury College and the family settled in the county’s shire town, leaving Vermont only for a two-year stint at Brown between 2014 and 2016.
“We hustled and figured out a way to stay here,” Rizzo said.
Rizzo is the Vice President for Advancement at Bennington College after working similar positions for Brown University and Middlebury College.
Rizzo’s philosophies about lacrosse date back to his formative years in New York, which he called a lacrosse hotbed, but also one not quite like any other.
“There’s a heavy Native American influence in upstate New York, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany. We grew up playing against the Native American kids, and I just loved it,” he said. “They would beat the heck out of you in a game with no bones about it, with the toughest, most competitive athletes that I still to this day have ever been around. And when the whistle blew and the game was over they had the biggest smiles on their face and couldn’t wait to hang out.”
Rizzo said he was impressed by the reverence that Native Americans, who invented lacrosse, have for the sport.
“I have a deep respect for the game and where the game came from,” he said. “They have a deep spiritual respect for the game. They call it the Creator’s game.”
Rizzo doesn’t expect every one of his athletes to share that innate feeling, but said they can understand what it means to do their best.
“All high school kids can’t feel that connection, but that’s part of what I talk about, that we’re all privileged to play this game,” he said. “You’re lucky to be able to do this. So one of the things we talk about a lot is just competing, being an athlete, and working hard.”
He believes teams that have athletic ability and the will to work hard can be more successful than more talented teams.
“A lot of my philosophy is just beat the guy next to you. Work harder than him, be faster than him, be stronger than him. Just compete,” he said. “I’d much rather have a group of solid athletes, but not necessarily technically great lacrosse players, because you can take a group of good athletes and help them understand how to be good lacrosse players, as opposed to a bunch of kids who might be really skilled with their sticks but might not have the work ethic or mental toughness.”
From what he saw of the Tigers a year ago and of some of them when he coached some of them as 8th-graders, Rizzo believes they could fit that description this season.
“I watched them a little bit last year, so I got a little bit of a sense of it,” he said. “I guess I would describe the team as a group of really good athletes who are pretty good lacrosse players.”
He will be assisted by Nick Felkl, Brent Rubright and Middlebury College senior Evan Chaletzky this season, and while Rizzo said he has “a good handle on the Xs and Os,” the group will focus more on intangibles. Encouraging and supporting teammates on and off the field will be a point of emphasis, along with sportsmanship.
“Working for each other is another thing we talk about a lot,” Rizzo said. “Love your brother and respect who you’re playing with and playing against.”
Athletes’ individual growth is also critical, he said.
“I spend a lot of time trying to understand the kids, who they are and what makes them tick,” he said. “As coaches it’s our job to truly understand who these guys are as human beings and then help them in their own development as human beings.”
Considering the chance to work again with his son and what he calls “a great group of kids,” Rizzo said he told MUHS Activities Director Sean Farrell he was thrilled to take over the program.
“I can’t wait. I was talking to Sean about the job,” Rizzo said. “I think I said to him that I’ve been leading teams in the business world and the lacrosse world for a long time, and when I think about this opportunity I’m more excited about this than anything I’ve ever done.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.
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