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Local track mourns passing of coaching legend Cassaro; Prep hockey coach Such tries to keep level head amid COVID-19 crisis

The late Sal Cassaro (left) poses with his son Chris (right) at a recent event. Sal Cassaro, the legendary track and field coach from Jersey City, passed away last week at the age of 76

It’s safe to say that Sal Cassaro was one of the most underrated track and field coaches in New Jersey state history.

Cassaro, who died last week at the age of 76, never got the credit for being a smart tactician and strategist in the sport, especially when it came to putting together teams for relay competitions.

Cassaro was never mentioned among the all-time legends, even including in his home county of Hudson County, even if he was named Coach of the Year in three different counties – Essex County at Essex Catholic, Bergen County at Paramus Catholic and Hudson County, during the last stop of his almost 40-year coaching career at Hudson Catholic in 2014.

“He was never motivated by recognition,” said Chris Cassaro, who followed in his father’s footsteps as an educator and a coach. “Track was really like a great hangout for him. He got to see all his track and field buddies.”

But because of his background as a math teacher, Sal Cassaro was a master of knowing where he needed to accrue points in a relays event, getting two points here and three points there. It was a combination of strategy, track savvy and excellent math skills, all things that personified Sal Cassaro.

“His greatest joy came when his Essex Catholic relay team won at the Penn Relays,” Chris Cassaro said of his father. “He had so much pride in those events. He lived for that stuff. He’d have all his cards out on the kitchen table, working on things like that. He would put things in order of relays.”

Cassaro was not only a math teacher and a track coach at places like Essex Catholic, where he spent 23 years before the school closed in the early 1990s, but he was also a part-time bookkeeper for Ramada Inns hotels, handling the overnight audits.

The younger Cassaro said that he received private instruction from his father, as Chris was becoming a solid field performer for Hudson Catholic and later St. Peter’s College.

“He was always my coach,” Chris Cassaro said. “When I first started throwing the shot [put], he would go over technique with me. Then, when I became a coach, I had the honor to coach with him.”

Rob Stern was the athletic director at Hudson Catholic when the school needed a new head track and field coach. Stern didn’t have to look far to hire Cassaro, considering Sal was the father to Stern’s wife Jennifer.

“I thought it would have been crazy not to hire him,” Stern said. “I remember going to a track meet at West Point and I had no idea what was going on. Chris was throwing and Sal was with his stopwatch. And I wondered how this was all going on at the same time. I was used to softball and football. I walked out of there that day saying, ‘How does he do this stuff?’”

Stern thought that hiring his father-in-law was the smartest thing he could have done.

“Sal was a numbers guy and he knew how to maximize numbers,” Stern said. “What made Sal such a great coach is that he always had the best interest of the kids in heart. The younger kids liked him. They called him ‘Pops.’ The kids respected him. They knew he was real. And track became real again at Hudson Catholic when Sal became the head coach. Everyone was sharing the [Jersey City] Armory, but Sal had the proximity to school and the Armory. He had to get in the Armory and got the best use of the place every time. In my mind, that’s the sign of a good coach.”

Cassaro’s health waned in recent years. He had a kidney transplant in 2007, had heart issues and battling diabetes, which eventually took his eyesight.

“The funny thing, he was losing his eyesight and couldn’t walk well, but he still knew where everything was,” Chris Cassaro said. “It was all second nature to him.”

The last meet Sal worked was the recent Jersey City Cross Country Championships, a little over a month ago.

“And he was able to count off the number of runners by the sound of their feet,” Cassaro said. “He knew it.”

Sal Cassaro was married to his wife, Patricia, and they had three children together, son Chris and daughters Michele and Jennifer.

“I’ll always remember his advice,” Chris Cassaro said. “His words of wisdom – he once told me to go from the known to the unknown. I took that into the classroom and coaching. There were two sides of my father. Before he got sick, he was a wise-cracking guy with the one liners. Then he became a quiet man who did what he had to do.”

“He was a special breed,” Stern said. “He was one of those old-time track guys who was there every year and was always looking forward to the start of the season.”

From a personal standpoint, Sal Cassaro was someone who I got to know pretty well over the last 30 years, going back to when his daughters were both students at the Academy of St. Aloysius where I was the basketball coach. In fact, both of his daughters served at one point as my scorekeeper.

But regardless, I knew who he was and the immense amount of respect I had for him and what he did as a teacher, a coach, a husband, a father and family caregiver. I enjoyed being in his company, even down to the last two times I saw him within the last two months. He was someone I wanted to be around as much as possible and now he’s gone. No question, he will be missed by many…

The high school hockey season is supposed to begin this week with practices in preparation for the start of the season, albeit an abbreviated one, next month.

Want to know some of the protocols that local hockey coaches have to endure?
Well, Ken Such has been the head coach at St. Peter’s Prep for two stints now but has never had to endure anything close to what this COVID-19 crisis campaign has been like.

For one, the Marauders were able to hold outdoor practices three days a week at places like the Secaucus Recreation Rink at Buchmiller Park or Pershing Field in Jersey City.

But there is no use of any locker room facilities, nor school buses for transportation. So the players have to find ways to get to and from the rinks on their own and cannot change at the rink. They have to climb into their parents’ cars in their sweaty uniforms – and anyone who has been around a hockey rink knows what they smell like – to head home to shower and change.

There are no benches or chairs outside the rink for parents to watch and wait for their children. So it means sitting in their vehicles and waiting until the practice is over.

“I feel terrible for the parents,” Such said. “They plop their bags down, then leave. I know when I wasn’t coaching, I used to enjoy going to practices to watch my sons. Some of these kids live in places like Summit and Chatham. What are their parents supposed to do? It’s a major challenge.”

Such said that the Marauders are slated to begin play Jan. 15 against Christian Brothers Academy, the state’s defending NJSIAA Non-Public A state champion. But there will be no fans allowed — another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Such said that many rinks have something called “live barn” which is a live stream from the respective rinks.

“We’re working on getting live barn at Pershing Field and Secaucus,” Such said.

The NJSIAA is allowing a maximum of 15 games this season, but no state playoffs. The Marauders, who will lean on senior defenseman Casey Truppner and the goaltending tandem of Aaron Rodriguez and Jimmy Gallagher, will try to compete for the Gordon Conference championship and the Gordon Cup.

“Having two senior goalkeepers bring a level of varsity experience to the team,” Such said. “They support each other. I’d like to see that carry through the rest of the team.”

Certainly means interesting times for a local hockey season, which will be the first one to be addressed during the COVID-19 crisis. – Jim Hague

Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com

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