Volleyball Coach With 444-67 Record Stepping Down

November 2, 2010 / Volleyball
The Standard Times (New Bedford, Mass.)

Sometimes, despite all the inspiring stories and triumphant moments and emotional happenings of a coach’s career, the single best way to sum things up are with cold, hard numbers.

And so it is for Steve De Rossi, who recently informed New Bedford High School athletic director Mike Correia that he wouldn’t be returning as head volleyball coach in the spring for a 25th season. He’ll leave behind an incredible legacy of 23 straight winning seasons, eight state championships, 11 South Sectional championships and a lifetime won-loss record of 444-67.

“The last couple years, I’ve been mulling it over, and it comes down to family and timing,” he said. De Rossi will remain as women’s coach at UMass Dartmouth, which plays a Little East Conference tournament game tonight. “If I didn’t have (UMD), it would have been much more difficult, I don’t know if I could have walked away from the sport of volleyball. It was a tough letter (of resignation) to write, but it wasn’t a tough decision when I realized I was at a time in my life where I had new priorities, and I know that there are people to pick up the ball for me at New Bedford.”

Correia accepted the decision, but not without a fight.

“When he handed me the letter, I set it aside and really gave him my ’A’ game to try to keep him around,” Correia said. “We’ve just been so fortunate to have him. It’s a huge loss, some really big shoes to fill.”

Really, really big shoes.

De Rossi has basically been the John Wooden of high school volleyball in this state — and the comparisons go beyond his remarkable .869 winning percentage at New Bedford (Wooden’s, by the way, was .808 at UCLA).

Like Wooden, he won year after year despite a constantly changing cast of characters, and he did it with class and grace, using positive motivation and a soft voice rather than fear and threats,

“I wanted the kids to do it because it means something to them, not because they’re getting forced into it,” he said. “I’m not a screamer. I think it would have been hard for me to have been any other way. But I think most of the kids come back and they’re appreciative of what we did.”

What did they do? They won 147 out of 148 matches at one point, with the only defeat coming in an epic state title match. They played crosstown rivalry games with GNB Voc-Tech that saw attendance hit four digits. They saw more than a dozen sets of brothers come through the program, and many graduates go on to become coaches themselves. They became a family, and not in name only — every Whaler game has at least one former player in the stands, and alumni take continued pride in their part of it.

Not bad for a program that started from square one with the whim of a 40-year-old non-coach in 1986.

“I was the only candidate,” De Rossi remembers as being his main qualification, and for once he’s not being modest. His son Scott was a senior going out for the team, and when De Rossi asked then-AD Dick Ponte about who had applied for the job the answer was nobody. So De Rossi handwrote an application — despite not having really been involved with the sport since a few pickup games in college, and never having coached above youth level.

“I went to the library and read a bunch of books about volleyball,” De Rossi said. “I took all 18 kids who tried out, and we just went out there and played.”

There were only 12 boys teams in the state at the time, and De Rossi remembers a reporter in those early days asking one of his players how it felt to be “playing a girls sport.”

But no one involved ever thought they were doing anything less than special.

“The kids just played with all kinds of drive,” he said. “They didn’t consider themselves newcomers, they just played hard, and I just took that and ran with it. Once the kids stopped playing backyard volleyball, Fourth of July volleyball, and treated it like an athletic sport, that’s when it changed.”

By his third year, the Whalers had won a state title. By his 13th season, they’d won eight of them.

As he reflected on his time at New Bedford High, he used the word “lucky” to describe several different reasons for his success, but he did admit that he just might have had something to do with all that winning.

“During the offseason, maybe two weeks after the season ended, I’d sit there for hours next to my wife, one eye on the TV, doing the player rotations, thinking of possibilities. I’m thinking, ’Who’s coming back, who’s going to do what?’ I worked hard at it, I’ll say that.”

New Bedford girls volleyball coach Neil Macedo, who will be shooting for a second straight state title in just a few days, has been there for most of De Rossi’s run.

“I coached with him the first five years, doing JV, and I learned a lot when I first started from him,” he said. “And we’ve learned a lot together. We know each other’s different philosophies, but they’re not very different. I learned from him to be a little more low-key, it certainly worked for him. It’s something special.”

De Rossi’s calm always seemed to translate to his players, who were envied by other coaches both for their success and for their conduct on the court.

“I think most of the kids have the mindset that win or lose, you have to be a class act,” he said. “If you ride a roller coaster all day, eventually you get sick.”

De Rossi took the women’s job at UMass Dartmouth after retiring as principal of Keith Junior High, and the new challenge divided his energies if not his loyalties. The Corsairs won six games in his first season, 12 in his second, 18 in his third, and now are sitting on 23 wins heading into tonight’s Little East Conference tournament game at Western Connecticut State.

“It’s very different,” De Rossi said. “There’s a different agenda. The guys are more ’me,’ the women are more ’we.’ They listen, they don’t act like they know it all. And these girls will run through a wall for you. These girls don’t get a dime, they’re here because they love to compete. Took me a little while to adjust, but I’ve got two daughters, that helped a little bit. It’s been a real plus.

“At high school, it’s ’Hey, are there any tall kids coming in? Track them down!’ Here, recruiting is important, and I think we’re really starting to do something good there.”

Correia had no timetable for a successor to De Rossi, but said that the school is already planning a tribute to the only coach in the program’s history.

De Rossi is looking forward to seeing the next stage.

“I thought that if you really love the program, it’s time to let someone else come in and give it a new energy,” he said. “But I still love the program, and I’m going to be a fan — hopefully I won’t get thrown out of the stands because now I can yell anything I want. I’ve been the face of NBH volleyball, it’s time to let someone else be the face of it.”

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