Coach's Corner: Justin Serpone, Men's Soccer
Issue   |   Tue, 10/01/2013 - 23:56

The Student had the chance to catch up with Justin Serpone, the contagiously fiery men’s soccer coach who led the Jeffs to a NESCAC title last fall. His philosophy continues to pay dividends as his team, despite tremendous losses to graduation, is once again undefeated. Though he knows a thing or two about winning, Serpone is equally adept at putting people first.

Q: Tell us about your early life and athletic background.
A: I’m originally from Winchester, Mass. and went to Winchester High. Believe it or not, I never played any soccer until high school. I played baseball and basketball growing up, but I wanted to play three sports just because all my buddies were doing it! My freshman team didn’t have a goalie, so I went out there and played goalie, and now, of course, I’ve fallen in love with it.

Actually, my most enjoyable sporting experience growing up was going to the state finals in basketball my junior year of high school. Everyone’s got those kinds of stories, but, for me, that set the standard as far as what a team was about. We actually played against Pioneer Valley, who had a kid, Adam Harrington, that eventually went to the NBA. What are the chances?

Q: Where did you go to college, and what was your playing career like there?
A: I went to Drew Univ., a small liberal arts school in N.J. That’s where I fell in love with Div. III and the liberal arts community atmosphere. I loved walking down the path and having everyone know my name — experiencing that kind of setting absolutely drew me to Amherst later on. I coached at Duke and Northwestern as an assistant, but I always knew that Div. III was for me.

I was actually a bench player in college, but I was a captain as a third-string goalie, which was a really special experience for me. I think that’s translated into big piece of my coaching philosophy: the importance of every guy, one through 27, and making sure everyone’s experience is equally engaged. Because that was me.

One thing that I took a lot from was a game my junior year when we lost to Messiah, 7-0, in the regular season. It was the worst loss Drew had had in a long time. Then we came back later that year in the playoffs and beat them, 1-0. I remember the focus we had going into that game, and the idea of having a plan, executing it and finding a way to get past adversity … that changed my outlook. I started to think, “Maybe it’s not just about having the most talent, or luck or anything like that.” When you get a group of guys together that can really buy into a journey, that can do some special things. That left a lasting impact, and I reflect on that when I think about the way we plan and prepare even now.

Q: Along those lines, do you have a favorite Amherst soccer memory?
A: That’s like asking, “Who’s your favorite kid?” But I think that at the end of the year — you go through three months with a group, and every team’s different — it’s all the moments in between the games; going out to training, on the bus after a win. I really enjoy those things, the conversations at breakfast on the road. But I will say that beating Williams last year in the NESCAC Final was pretty awesome! There were a couple guys that day … I’ve never seen them happier. I remember appreciating that while it was happening. That’s what sports is about: to go on a journey with a group of people and to accomplish something. That’s why we do this. If there weren’t that aspect, soccer would just be kicking a ball in a goal — and who cares about that? Another piece of the puzzle that helps is the great kids here, and that’s got nothing to do with soccer. I couldn’t be more blessed to be at a place like this.

Q: Thus far, it seems that the team has a good chance to repeat this year, so how would you describe your outlook at the moment?
A: It’s been a really interesting year. We had this really accomplished senior class graduate, and, this season, arguably two of our best players (Milton Rico ’15 and Julien Aoyama ’14) have barely played. So it’s been arguably a complete turnover from last year. We’ve had no choice but to improve game by game, and, so far, we have done that. Last year, to be honest, my job was not to get in the way, not to screw anything up! This year is the opposite. The younger players need me to coach them to learn and get better, and that’s been a fun process. But all we’re worried about right now is Hamilton on Saturday. If we start to think too far down the road, we may not get to those moments where we might win a championship. So we’ve got a lot of work to do, particularly getting Aoyama and Rico healthy. If we can focus on winning the next game — and that’s a coaching cliché, I know — I think that’s especially important for this particular team. We have first-years and sophomores that haven’t been through the battles yet.

Q: What do you consider the toughest aspect of coaching?
A: One of the toughest things is walking the line between sending a message to your team and giving messages to individuals. There’s that saying “there’s no ‘I’ in team.” But, of course, a team is made up of individuals. Especially in college, we’ll dealing with 18-22 year olds that have so much on their plate, and not forgetting that is so important. This year, we’ve got guys from six different countries, and socioeconomically we’re pretty diverse — you’ve always got to remind yourself of that, too.

I do think that what you hope to do in a top program is have messaging from the upperclassmen as well as the coach. Our seniors this year have provided an excellent example of how we operate. Even holding doors open in Val, picking up trash on the quad — our younger guys see those things, and they do what they see! You’re hoping that the seniors are doing a lot of the modeling, even though that’s not easy when you have 17 underclassmen on the team!

Q: Tell us a little bit about your family.
A: My wife, Angela, is the women’s lacrosse coach over at UMass. I’m the second best coach in my family! She’s won three championships, and she’s kicking butt. I also have a two-year-old daughter, Lily, and a three-month-old son, Ty. They’re fantastic. Lily just started school last week, and we’re loving it — she’s already running around with a lacrosse stick in her hand! She comes to the games, and it’s really special. This athletic department is a great place to have young kids and raise your family. We live over in Hadley, so we’re eight minutes away. It’s important to me not to have a divide between my personal life and my coaching life. I want guys to feel comfortable, if they need to talk, coming over and watching football and talking or whatever it may be. All of our guys also know Angela really well. It’s a really tight group, and I’m happy with it.

Q: Finally, do you have any post-soccer plans at this point?
A: With two young kids, I can’t even think past next Tuesday! But, right now, I’m loving coaching. Since I’ve been here, I’ve also gotten three graduate degrees, and I’m starting my fourth. When I have to go home on a Sunday and write a paper after a tough game, that’s important for me, because I am able to relate to our student-athletes and what they’re going through. I have my MBA and sports administration degree, so who knows what lies ten or twenty years ahead. But I think I’d miss being around a team. If you really want to know, I’ll probably do this forever!