She played soccer, basketball and softball at Sacred Heart High of Waterbury and at Post University. For 11 years, she played semi-pro football at every position except kicker.
Jennifer Stango Garzone coaches girls basketball and softball at Wolcott Tech and for seven years has been an assistant with the Wolcott Tech football team that morphed into the MCW United co-op program with Housatonic Valley Regional and Wamogo-Litchfield.
Garzone not only is qualified to become the first female high school football head coach in Connecticut history, she understands the art of leading both young men and women.
“Yes, there are differences,” she said. “It depends on the sport and their experience and background. But at the end of the day kids are kids. They want structure. They want challenges. They want to be successful. You need to build their trust.
“I will say this: Female athletes who wear mouthguards take good care of them. They keep them in a case, keep them clean. The guys I’ve had, if that mouthguard falls off on the bus floor and they find it a week later, it’s going right back in. I can’t explain it. I have seen it.”
We nearly forgot. Garzone has the requisite sense of humor, too.
As it grew clearer last fall that Jamie Coty, who founded the Wolcott Tech program in 2007, was going to make it his final year, Garzone knew what she wanted. The posting went up in November. She applied. This past week, she found out officially she was hired as MCW United coach. Although a few women have been head high school football coaches, Garzone is believed to be the only in the U.S. right now.
Garzone applied several years ago for the head coaching job at O’Brien Tech in Ansonia. She knew she wasn’t ready. She honed her craft under Coty. She learned under fire. She is ready.
“It’s a great honor,” Garzone said. “The biggest thing for me is to keep the opportunity for football alive for my students. If it opens the doors for women that I played football with, if it brings young women after me into the game and enables to help them pursue a career in athletics, all the better.”
She played semipro football for the Connecticut Crush, Northeastern Nitro, Connecticut Wreckers and New England NightMare. At age 35, Garzone makes one thing clear. She hasn’t retired.
“Last year was the first year I didn’t play and the major reason was I was going on my honeymoon to Hawaii and it would have been during the season,” she said. “If I’m going to do something, I’m 100 percent committed. It wouldn’t fair to not be there.
“This year I was off because I’m pregnant. As long as everything is order, I want to get back out there. I never said I was retired.”
How’s this for a coach’s story? Jennifer Stango married Francesco Garzone in the fall of 2017 — on a bye football week. She waited until the summer to go on her honeymoon.
Garzone grew up playing street football. If she didn’t make the soccer team at Sacred Heart, she told herself she’d go out for football. She made the soccer team. Football would wait.
“After graduating (from Post) one of my college coaches, Christine Huber, who played for the Crush, called and said, ‘Hey, there’s a football team in Connecticut. You should think about joining.’ I said, ‘Just tell me when and where,’ ” Garzone said.
Garzone was primarily a linebacker and fullback. Depending on the season, she also played the line. She was a long snapper. She was a holder. She played quarterback for a game. Everything except kick extra points.
“Playing all three facets of the game was beneficial,” Garzone said. “But being an assistant under Jamie Coty was invaluable. He never once looked at me as someone who didn’t know what they were doing. He gave me a lot of freedom to work with the kids.
“A few years ago, I wanted to learn a couple of positions that I hadn’t played a lot. Jamie was more than willing to guide me. Being an assistant was absolutely an integral part of adding building blocks every year.”
Garzone said her reception as a football coach has been mostly positive.
“When I first started going off-site — fortunately it only happened once this year — teams that we didn’t see a lot sent their players over to me,” Garzone said. “They thought I was the trainer. I’d have to say, ‘Sorry, guys, I’m not certified to tape your ankle.’ ”
Like we said, she isn’t without the requisite humor.
“For the most part, the coaches within our league know who I am,” she said. “Adam Starvish at Cheney Tech is fantastic. Nick Aprea at O’Brien Tech as well. They’re very helpful. I’ve been fortunate in that regard.”
The acclimation with students got better for Garzone, a social studies teacher, when she got into Wolcott Tech four years ago. She had been teaching in Kaynor Tech in Waterbury. She met Francesco at Wolcott Tech, where he teaches math. He is the public address announcer at football games and sings the anthem.
“On the side, he has a little rock band, plays guitar and is the lead singer,” Garzone said.
“He is,” Garzone said. “I decided to allow him to sing at basketball games for us. If he wasn’t cutting it, he would not have been called to the gym.”
In discussing schemes with Damian Gwinn and Larry Gwinn, who’ll remain on the staff, Garzone has developed ideas. She knows she must be flexible. This has not been easy since MCW was formed in 2016 after the schools didn’t field a varsity team. The Wolcott Tech program last won a game in 2014. The last Housatonic/Wamogo victory came in 2011. MWC was 0-10 last season.
“We’re graduating eight seniors and hoping for 25 kids back, but, really, we’ve got to see who comes to practice in August,” Garzone said. “A lot of time at Wolcott Tech, we ran veer, tandem and double wing. For two years we were able to do solely triple option and a spread. Last year, we didn’t have the personnel. We simplified things and pretty much went a wishbone set with a spread built in.”
There are challenges traversing the Northwest Corner. Housatonic Valley in Falls Village, Garzone said, has a great field and a weight room. Wolcott Tech in Torrington hasn’t had a weight room and because of drainage hasn’t been a site for a game in over three years.
“The travel time between Housy and Wolcott Tech is approximately 35 minutes,” Garzone said. “We have kids who live an hour and a half from each other.”
The rules among school districts also aren’t the same. Last year, for example, with all the heat. If one school canceled classes and afternoon activities, that pretty much meant the team couldn’t do anything that day.
“The benefits are building a relationship with various communities in that corner of the state and giving our kids an opportunity to play an interscholastic sport,” Garzone said. “Athletics are one of the most important things kids can be a part of in high school.”
She is in her 31st week of her pregnancy with her first child. Everything is going well.
“I can’t complain,” said Garzone, whose basketball team is 12-8 heading into the CTC tournament. “Don’t get me wrong. I miss being able to sleep a complete night. And the wardrobe choices haven’t been the greatest, but it’s temporary.”
Compression socks help. At a recent game, she took off her shoes and coached in black socks.
Garzone will continue to coach three sports. She’ll start with softball until her due date on April 24. Her softball parents were telling her they’d care for the baby during games, but she’ll be on six-week maternity leave and to coach she must be teaching. So Coty will take over temporarily. Garzone will there be cheering with her little girl or boy. Jennifer and Francesco didn’t want to know.
“You get very few surprises in life and this is one of them,” Garzone said. “Besides I’m the last person who should be asked to decorate and color-coordinate a room. Definitely not my strong suit.”
Coaching both young men and young women with integrity and a sense of humor? Definitely her strong suit.