SOUTHINGTON — For the record, Austin Magaro is the head coach and Rob Palko the assistant.
For all practical purposes, they are joint chiefs of staff for the Southington boys soccer team, a 1-2 combination commanding a program in which they have been both players and, for roughly the last eight years, assistant coaches to previous head man Dave Yanosy.
They were groomed by their predecessor. They both went after the job, yet were committed to working as a united front.
“We sat down, Rob and I, and said, ‘If it’s going to be somebody, it’s going to be one of us, and then we’re going to help the other one,’” Magaro said of the Yanosy succession. “We always had this in our mind, this tandem coaching project where one person is going to get the head coaching name, but it’s going to be the two of us who do it. It’s going to be a duo.”
Thus was born the Starsky & Hutch of Southington soccer.
Wait, strike that. That’s going back too far. Magaro is only 31 and Palko 30.
That single year, along with Magaro’s light hair and Palko’s dark, is one of their few marked differences. Both grew up in Southington. Both played right-midfield for Southington High School. Both now teach in Southington.
Both are engaged. Both postponed wedding plans due to the pandemic.
In Yanosy’s assessment, Magaro is a terrific organizer and Palko a tactical wizard. Any outsider can quickly see they’re on the same page, to the point where they finish each other’s sentences.
“I’d say we’re both products of the Yanosy...” Magaro begins.
“Coaching tree,” Palko concludes.
Return, new paragraph.
“We’ve been here ...”
“Since 2007-08 — no, those were our senior years, ’07-08, respectively — so ’03-04 ...”
“’03-04 is when we started playing in this program under Coach (Steve) Victor, at the time.”
“There was a collegiate gap and then we’ve been here ever since.”
”As soon as we both got back from college this was the first thing we did.”
And now it is their turn to run the show.
After three weeks of cohort conditioning and non-contact skills work, Magaro and Palko’s Southington squad, like all other Connecticut fall sports teams not playing football, shifted to full-team practice on Monday in preparation for an abbreviated season slated to begin Thursday, Oct. 1.
That night, at 6 p.m., the Blue Knights will open under the lights at New Britain. Their home opener, against Plainville, is an old-school Saturday matinee on October 3 at 3:45 p.m.
For the record, those games will mark the coaching debut of Magaro and Palko. For all practical purposes, they’ve already been there and done that.
As long-time assistants under Yanosy, Magaro and Palko, along with Keith Langston, who retired after the 2018 campaign, were given considerable latitude and a variety of duties.
That was standard operating procedure. Last fall, when Yanosy let it be known 2019 would be his last as head coach, it really ramped up.
“Last season, right before we started, Dave had a talk with us and gauged where our heads were at, whether we ever wanted to pursue this,” Magaro said. “When we said we would absolutely love to carry on the tradition, because we wouldn’t want it to go to anyone else, we’d want to keep it in the family, it just became our goal to take this over.”
In preparation, Yanosy gave his assistants even more responsibility. On a given practice day, Yanosy would coach freshmen, Palko would run varsity and Magaro JV. The next day, perhaps, Palko would be on JV and Magaro on varsity.
“We’ve both been coaching at every single position for every single team in this program,” Palko noted. “On top of that, as Dave started to wind down last season, he started to mix it up as well so that we would have not only the stake, but the responsibility in the eyes of the players as well.”
Throughout Yanosy’s final year, the heirs apparent were exposed to the gamut of the program — tactical decisions, offseason conditioning, captains’ interviews.
“We got to the point where I just had tremendous trust in their abilities,” Yanosy said. “These guys are going to put their stamp on it in their own way, which they should. But, hopefully, they had a good opportunity to see an almost year-round process of how a program could potentially work.”
“I can’t say enough about both of them,” Yanosy added. “The program is in fantastic hands.”
A changing of the guard is rare in Southington soccer. It’s happened only three times and it’s followed the same pattern: head coach has been replaced by loyal assistant.
Program founder Dan Murawski steered the ship for 30 years before giving way in 1999 to Steve Victor, who had been with him for a decade. Victor, in turn, was followed in 2006 by Yanosy, an assistant for the five seasons previous.
Yanosy’s “right-hand” man was Langston, who signed on in 2006 and signed off as the state’s Assistant Coach of the Year in 2018.
“With Rob and Austin, I’m hoping it develops into that same type of long-term relationship where, yeah, Austin is the head coach, but Rob’s right there as his right-hand guy just like Keith was with me,” Yanosy said, adding, “I think with those guys, being from town, being teachers in town, hopefully they can continue the tradition of having longevity in that position.”
Magaro, a University of Maryland grad, teaches Social Studies at DePaolo Middle School. Palko, a product of Marist, teaches English at the high school.
They’ll be married men once this pandemic passes. In the meantime, it is presenting a maiden coaching campaign of unprecedented challenges.
“What better way to take it?” said Magaro. “If we can get through this season, everything else is going to feel like a breeze.”