To say it’s been a rough few months for Monsignor Pace head coach Joe Zaccheo would be understating the issue.
Since coming out of retirement after a decade-long hiatus in 2015, Zaccheo has spent the last two seasons trying to rebuild what was once a proud, state championship winning program he had his fingerprints all over before stepping aside.
Last spring everything started to come apart when nine players - including seven starters transferred out.
But his biggest obstacle came Sept. 1 when Zaccheo didn’t even make the trip to a game at Clewiston, which was eventually by stormy weather. Complaining of pain and discomfort in his abdomen, his doctor called him and told him to get to Hollywood Memorial Hospital immediately.
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Routine gall bladder removal surgery was anything but for Zaccheo. Complications from a large stone that could not be removed with a laser resulted in major surgery. He spent the next 10 days hospitalized and he didn't return to the sideline until a few weeks ago.
Through it all, the Spartans haven’t blinked. Pace’s latest conquest came Saturday night with a 42-6 running clock beating on winless Edison at Traz Powell Stadium. And with that, Pace moved its record to 4-1 in Region 4-4A.
Running backs Willie Floyd and Tyrone Douglas led the way for Pace with 81 yards rushing each.
With no districts in place statewide from Classes 4A on down, only the top four teams in each regional will qualify for the playoffs and Pace’s victory on Saturday only bolstered its position.
The Spartans came into the week in the No. 3 spot trailing only University School (who they suffered their only loss to 27-22 on Sept. 22) and Key West and leading No. 4 North Broward Prep., No. 5 Gulliver and yes, Booker T. Washington. The five-time state champion Tornadoes didn’t help themselves with a loss to Chaminade on Thursday.
“We’ve been able to do it this year not because of Joe Zaccheo but because of the kids we have in place right now and my coaching staff,” said Zaccheo who led the Spartans to the 3A state title in 2003, upsetting Jacksonville Bolles in the title game. “These kids are a throwback to our old days from the late 90s and early 2000s when we were really enjoying major success. I could yell and scream and push them to the limits. They respond because they know it’s not coming from a basis of hate and fear, it’s coming from a basis of love. Now we have kids in place that know that we know what it takes to get to the next level.”
Asked if he took a look at himself in the mirror when he saw all of his kids bolting, Zaccheo was as honest as could be.
“If you don’t look in the mirror and look at yourself, you’re a fool,” he said. “You have to do that. What am I doing wrong? What am I doing right? Then the realization hits you that it is not you. It’s the new society that we live in. A world of instant gratification, social media and to be honest, the new rules in the FHSAA. A kid can now go anywhere he wants at anytime he wants.”
Floyd certainly left a pretty nice situation to come over to Pace. He and his older brother Lorenzo were both part of Carol City’s state championship team last season but both chose to come to Pace and play for Zaccheo, Lorenzo as the team’s quarterback.
“It’s his loyalty and the way he never breaks a promise,” said Willie Floyd of his coach. “You always know where you stand with him and he always has your back which makes you want to have his back. He’s strict and tough but it always makes you want to play hard for him.”
Zaccheo then became quite critical of the college recruiting system in place now and the unscrupulous habits many coaches and scouts have lowered themselves to.
“I hate to say this because this is my profession and you know how much I love it, but some of these coaches coming into this sport nowadays, their ethics lets say aren’t what they used to be,” Zaccheo said.
“Some of them get in a kids ear and it’s ‘I’m a high school coach and I went to school with this guy and he’s a college coach, can you do me a favor and make an offer to this kid,’ ” Zaccheo said. “There are so many bogus offers out there right now it’s ridiculous and these kids are buying into it. How is it the majority of these kids who left my program on say a Monday afternoon and by Tuesday all of the sudden they have six offers from colleges? Even though they never played a down for anybody, but the very next day they’re at that school and they’ve got offers? Come on, seriously?
“The day that I’ve got to start making up a phony offer for a kid is the day I quit this business."
Zaccheo, though, isn't ready to quit. There's more work to do.
There was once a time when Pace treated postseason play like a birth-right as the Spartans made the playoffs 18 years in a row from 1991 to 2008, at the time tying a state record with Northwestern. But 2010 is the last time Pace had a taste of the postseason, and, with three games left against Port St. Lucie Treasure Coast, Keys Gate and rival Belen Jesuit, they’re right in the mix to get there.
“We’re going to try and take care of our business down the stretch and see where we come out,” Zaccheo said. “It would be nice to finally taste the postseason again, these kids deserve it.”