Working with high school kids is a privilege that comes with substantial responsibilities. That reality was never lost on Patsy Kamercia, longtime physical-education teacher and field hockey coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School in Higganum.
Coach Kamercia always approached her job with the utmost professionalism, inspiration, and love during every one of the 35 years she taught, and 41 years she coached at H-K.
Last week, Patsy Kamercia, 69, died after a brave battle with a rare cancer that affects the bone marrow and blood. Her passing was felt by the scores of players, students, colleagues, and friends who knew Patsy because, quite simply, she defined everything that was right about public schools and athletics.
“She was one of the best people I knew, someone who would be completely honest with you because she loved and cared for you,” wrote a former player in a typical Facebook tribute. “She was someone who pushed you to be your best. Someone who also just loved you, as is. Thank you for teaching me how to be an athlete, teammate, sister, friend, and daughter. You were a second mom to me.”
Coach Kamercia was indeed a pioneer — a true role model for girls — as she became the first-ever woman to serve as athletic director at a Connecticut public school, a feat earning her induction into the Connecticut Athletic Director’s Hall of Fame. Subsequently, she was also inducted into the Connecticut Field Hockey Hall of Fame, the Connecticut State Coaches’ Hall of Fame, and the Haddam-Killingworth Hall of Fame. She was, quite simply, a successful woman who embodied confidence and who instilled that same self-assurance in her players.
“She was passionate, loving, and full of grace, while also being perfectly tough and fiercely competitive,” noted Kelley Devlin, a former player and 2005 H-K grad. “She turned my timid little freshman self into a confident athlete. She gave everything to her teams and was so intentional in helping us create awesome memories and building strong friendships.”
The coach’s success on the field was obvious. She won 461 total games, 16 Shoreline Conference championships, and four state championships, including last year’s Class S title shared with Westbrook.
Hartford Courant reporter Lori Riley explained that Coach Kamercia “opted not to tell her team of her diagnosis last year. She wanted them to enjoy their season. And about a month after the Cougars tied Westbrook 1-1 in overtime for the Class S state championship, she finally told them.”
Typical Patsy. It was always about the kids, always about others. Anyone who worked in the same building as Coach would never know of her field hockey success except through the girls on the team. She always kept it about the kids — about the team.
In like fashion, Coach Kamercia developed a tradition whereby she invited high school staff members — other teachers and coaches — to deliver a pre-game speech before state tournament games. The point was to expose her girls to the wisdom and enthusiasm of a variety of adult role models.
“Coach K asked me to speak to her team before a state game two years ago,” said Rob Grasso, assistant football coach at H-K. “I asked her why a coach who has won all those state championships would ask a coach who hasn’t won any championships to speak to her team. Her simple response was, ‘You love kids and you love coaching. Give us your passion.’ I did my best. I was humbled that day.”
We are all humbled. Patsy was not a role model for just students and players; she led the way for colleagues, too. I always admired the dedication and optimism she brought to school every day, and I never stopped learning from the example she set. It’s a feeling that will stay with me for a long time, just as it has with her players.
“She was an amazing coach,” said Aimee Sullivan Yarber, who played for Coach Kamercia in the 1990s. “I didn’t always appreciate her as a teenager making me work hard, but as an adult I can look back and see the major impact she had on my life. She taught me stamina, perseverance, and most importantly, heart. When I ran my first half-marathon at age 34, there was only one person I wanted to see — Patsy Kamercia.”
We miss Coach Kamercia already. Thankfully, she has blessed us with her indelible, affirmative influence.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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