WPIAL's winningest softball coach taking tough approach this season at Sto-Rox

| Thursday, April 5, 2012, 12:30 a.m.

Something was wrong with one of the WPIAL's proudest softball programs.

In the wake of his team losing its final four games last season — punctuated meekly by an upset loss as the No. 2 seed in the opening round of the playoffs — Sto-Rox coach Bill Palermo called a meeting with his players and their parents. He knew where the problem lay.

“It was me,” said Palermo, the winningest coach in WPIAL history.

So the highlight of the meeting became an ultimatum. Palermo, who turns 64 next month and carries the energy of a man half his age, was going back to his old ways.

No more Mr. Nice Guy.

“I wasn't as tough on them as I was in past years. With my Sto-Rox kids, I have to be a little tougher,” said Palermo, who has a 560-130 career record.

“I told the parents and kids, ‘I want your full support. I don't want excuses. I'm winding up my career. So if I'm coming back next year, you're going to be in my corner.' ”

There was no argument.

And now, the Palermo who relies on negative reinforcement as much as pats on the back, the one who demands to see slides on the base paths and diving grabs in the field, who seethes to watch a player strike out looking, that guy is back.

“He's made me cry before with some things he's said,” junior outfielder Hayley Weisser said. “But nothing prepared us for this year. He came back 10 times harder.”

It's not all fire and brimstone, of course. Palermo has lifted his ban on in-game chanting from the dugout, and the players have adopted a nickname for the coach — “Pappy.”

“As long as you're saying it with the right tone,” Palermo said.

Still, a more intense edge remains the backdrop to the Class A No. 2 Vikings' 5-0 start this season — a record that, in truth, means little in perspective to a program that defines itself by championships.

Sto-Rox has a record 10 WPIAL titles, though the last came in 2006. There's a growing feeling, however, that this year's group might be ready to return to that level.

“(Palermo) is putting the pressure on in practice, so we're prepared when we hit the WPIAL and state playoffs,” Weisser said. “Last year, there was pressure, and we just couldn't take it.”

The talent, if anything, is certainly in place for a championship run. Weisser is batting near .500, and sophomore catcher Mary Cersosimo emerged as a potent bat last season by hitting .390 with 19 RBI.

But it's senior No. 1 pitcher Natalya Smarra, a .585 hitter a year ago, who's the unquestioned leader. And as much as her coach, she helps set the tone for the refocused Vikings.

“I'm one that refuses to lose, can't stand losing, just like (Palermo),” Smarra said. “It's going to be great, but if we play like we did the past three years, we're going come out the losing team like we have.”

Dan Stefano is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at dstefano@tribweb.com or 412-380-5697.

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