July 30, 2008
QUEENS, N.Y. -
This past weekend, two of St. John's head coaches led their New York City squads to gold medals in their respective sports - one as a coach and the other as a player - at the 2008 Summer Empire State Games held in Binghamton, N.Y. Women's soccer head coach Ian Stone took the reigns of the N.Y.C. Open women's soccer team, while volleyball head coach Joanne Persico-Smith was the starting setter for the Open women's volleyball team.
Persico-Smith, who was appearing in the Games for the 26th time, helped lead the team to a gold-medal victory for a record fifth straight year. The squad, which featured former Red Storm standouts Hui Ping Huang and Olga Roudovski and current team members Chen Chen and Kun Song, wasn't expected to be the contender it had been in years past, but surprised everyone by taking home the top prize.
"It was an incredible weekend," said Persico-Smith. "This was the toughest Games I can remember in a long time, but to win the gold for five years in a row is sensational. I am so proud of the City's team."
The squad played in the opening round of the competition on Thursday and Friday and compiled a 9-3 set record, which ranked it third in the pool of six. On Saturday, N.Y.C. had the early match, which was an elimination match against the Hudson Valley team, and won in straight sets, 25-9 and 25-17, to make it to the finals tournament - a double-elimination field of four (New York City, Central New York, Western New York and Long Island).
After defeating Long Island in a very close match, the City squad moved into the winner's bracket, where it faced a tough Western squad. Persico-Smith and the team won the decisive third set after splitting the first two to set up a championship showdown with the winner of the loser's bracket, Long Island. The Islanders won that match two sets to one, forcing a one-set playoff to decide the gold medal champion. Finally, the long weekend had come to a triumphant end when N.Y.C. defeated the Long Island team 25-17 in the set to win the gold medal.
"That was the most volleyball I've played in a long time and my legs aren't what they used to be," said Persico-Smith. "It's such an experience though, I still learn so much from the girls by playing and thinking like a player. However, I think its time to call it quits after 26 years of playing. I know I'm done, it's bittersweet, but at least I go out on top."
Meanwhile, in soccer, Stone led the New York City Open women's team to unprecedented success. The 2008 team captured the gold medal, posting a perfect 4-0 record which included a 2-0 shutout victory over Long Island in the championship game.
This was the first time in the 30-year history of the Empire State Games that the New York City team captured the gold medal. Stone has led the team to new successes each year at the helm of the program. When he took over in 2006, the squad won the bronze, marking the first time in history that the team medaled. In 2007, the team went on to win the silver.
"I was proud and honored to have the opportunity to coach the New York City Open Empire State Games team," Stone said. "I think the gold medal proves that women's soccer is alive and kicking in the five boroughs, and I hope that this success encourages young female players in New York City to pursue their dreams of soccer greatness."
Stone compiled a talented roster and one that he was familiar with, as five current and five former St. John's players were part of the team. Former players Pristina Alford, Laura Burlacu, Joanna Diminich, Claudia Rubino and Natasha Lee, along with current Red Storm players Jacklyn James, Courtney Lane, Jessica Simonetti, Anna Torregiano and Tatiana Duggan were part of the championship team.
"Coach was so excited and we were thrilled to win the gold," James said. "We went in and gave it 100 percent. There were some tough games, but we worked together and played well. Our goal was to go for the gold and we are very proud that we accomplished that."
"One of the main reasons I took over the team was to get some of our St. John's alumnae to continue to play, and at the same time it's great that they can interact and compete with current players," Stone said. "It was a good balance because some of the veteran players provided a great deal of experience and tactical knowledge and the younger, current players provided the endurance over the course of the four-match tournament. We also got lots of help from non-St. John's players that was crucial in our success."
For more coverage on the two gold medal victories and the Empire State Games, check out the following articles that appeared in the Queens TimesLedger and Newsday:
Five Alive! Women win gold again, by Marc Raimondi (Queens Times-Ledger)
Golden girls, by Marc Raimondi (Queens Times-Ledger)
NYC women take soccer gold medal, by Joseph Staszewski (Newsday)