CONCORD >> Most people in Paul Costa’s position four years ago wouldn’t have been thinking about their day jobs.
Costa sat in a funeral home in January 2012, watching the stream of well-wishers bid farewell to his father, Mario, after a nearly two-decade battle with cancer. The Garnet Valley girls soccer team that the younger Costa coached wasn’t, for a rare moment, foremost in his mind. Until they arrived at the funeral, the entire squad, to a player, to help their coach grieve for someone who was a fixture on the sidelines for years.
“That’s when I knew I was successful as a coach and we were successful as a program,” Costa said at a recent practice. “Wins and losses didn’t matter anymore. We achieved our goal at that moment, and it was through (my father’s) hard work.”
Plenty of teams break their huddles with the call of “1, 2, 3, Family.” Fewer show up to a morning practice in late August overseen by a figure like Costa, wearing a shirt that reads “The Family,” the words hanging from the marionette strings from “The Godfather” logo.
And for all the trite platitudes about sisterhood and closeness that can seem forced or superficial, few teams have been bonded with the kind of heartache and loss that defines real families like the Garnet Valley community.
Mario Costa’s story of perseverance compels that closeness. The elder Costa was diagnosed with cancer in 1996, just as his son was finishing high school. He underwent four surgeries through the years, including one procedure in 2001 that resulted in a stroke and an aneurysm. Yet he recovered, able to continue working as a carpenter at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where he would undergo chemotherapy treatments on his lunch break before soldiering back for the rest of his shift.
He retired before his health took an irreversible turn in 2009. Despite needing a wheelchair, he remained a constant presence for his son’s teams, developing friendships with many players through the final game of the 2011 season. On Jan. 5, 2012 — as Paul proudly proclaims, six months to the day after doctors gave him a prognosis of three to six months to live — Mario’s battle ended.
But his influence on the Jaguars has continued to grow. The team complements their game attire with gray ribbons for brain cancer awareness. They’ve raised money for the National Brain Tumor Walk in Wilmington, Del., while sponsoring Paul for Ironman races in his father’s memory. The program’s summer camp bears Mario’s name, with proceeds sponsoring memorial scholarships for players and donations to raise awareness.
Those endeavors have brought the team together. Though the current senior class was in eighth grade when Mario passed away, many fondly remember him, thanks to a program that fosters continuity from grades 1-12 and through elder sisters on varsity.
“I know that when my sister played, we all kind of looked up to those girls,” said defender Rachel Warden, whose sister Haley was a 2014 graduate and All-Delco. “And when he passed away, you could definitely see that it changed the dynamic with the team, and that’s really when the family mentality really became important and became the main value for the whole team. I think that’s brought us much closer and why GVWS is so close.”
The grief that galvanized the elder generations has passed with time, but Costa perpetuates the beneficial aspects of his father’s impact down the years. The simple fact that he handled such adversity in high school, when he was in his players’ shoes, creates a player-coach empathy that is truly rare.
“I think that he’s sensitive to a lot of different things because he’s experienced so much,” Warden said. “I think a lot of coaches are kind of distant from their players, but I think he tries hard to be involved with all of our lives and help us whenever we need to. It creates the foundation that we can always go to if something is wrong or if we have a bad day, we always have soccer to come to.”
Costa is often training for endurance events, meaning he’ll regularly accompany the girls on fitness runs. That shifts the power dynamic from a coach commanding from on high to equality in at least one regard.
“I think it adds a little bit of more respect,” senior Emily Mathewson said. “If you just have a coach who’s yelling at you to run, you’re a little more against it. But if he’s running with you, it’s kind of that we’re all in this together.”
“It’s better than running alone,” junior Britney Dragoni said. “You don’t see a coach that runs with you on your long runs, your two-and-a-half mile runs. He’s really supportive, and he does it with you.”
The family atmosphere has translated into success on the field. The Jaguars have been a regular postseason fixture, winning a first-round game in 2012 and hosting games in two of the last three years. With seven seniors returning — including Madison Ireland, Kara Nakrasius, Jenna Buttermore, Eva Wenger and Alex Zecca — plus seasoned junior goalkeeper Ashley Bufano and the goal-scoring threat posed by the All-Delco Dragoni, they hope the upward trajectory continues.
“I think we have really big goals,” Warden said. “Garnet Valley always likes to be the underdog, and I think that we always have that mentality, so people think we’re the underdog and we’re going to come out and show that we’re really strong.”
Strength is, after all, something the Jags have shown in many, more important areas.
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