Meet the Coach of America’s Top Girls Soccer Team

Success is nothing new for Rye High Girls’ Soccer coach Rich Savage. Named the 2008 League coach of the year, he led that team to the girls’ first-ever State championship. Now they’re not just on top of the State at 12-0 but leading the nation, according to the latest ESPN rankings. With the Garnets having clinched the League title, it seemed a good time to chat with the man behind the women.

Savage grew up in Rye and played varsity soccer at Rye High. After college he worked as an investment analyst but wanted to teach, so he got his Master’s degree in education at night. He then taught at St. Gregory’s in Harrison and at Iona.

In 1998, when Savage was an assistant headmaster at Iona Grammar School, a teaching position came up in Rye. “I wanted to teach in the community where I grew up.” He took the fifth-grade job at Osborn and moved back here with wife Marjut, who teaches yoga and fitness. In addition, he took on the challenge of coaching both Rye High boys’ and girls’ teams.

Then came 2006, when Westchester moved girls’ soccer to a fall schedule like the boys, and he had to choose. “I felt a loyalty to both teams. I took over coaching the girls when they were struggling and helped them evolve.”

Have they ever! His current team boasts Rye’s all-time leading girls’ scorer, Lia Bellizzi, already signed to play Division I soccer at Virginia. At the same time, Rye is setting defensive records, having given up just three goals all season, thanks in no small measure to Dartmouth-bound goalkeeper Tatiana Saunders, keeper for Britain’s national youth team.

When asked the secret of the team’s success, Savage naturally started off with his striker and goalie. But he didn’t stop there, singing the praises of senior co-captains Catharine Greer (“the best marking back in the league”), senior defensive players Amanda Benincasa (“her throw-ins are like corner kicks”) and Kelly McRedmond, (coach says, “as a team, we’re defensive-minded first, then offensive”), senior co-captain Maddie Chabot and senior Kaelyn Lucas (“they stop everything on the outside”) and midfielders, senior co-captain Carter Talgo and senior Natalie Moore (“they are always in position”) as well as sophomore forward Vania Ludman, who has “grown unbelievably since last year and with Lia, creates many scoring opportunities.”

“I think the real secret to our success, though, may be the unsung heroes, the girls who come to practice everyday, support the team in every way imaginable, but rarely get to play in a big game.” He cited sophomore keeper Lexi Hijazi and senior Brook Galliard. “ And don’t forget the mud pies junior midfielder Lindsay Welhoelter always makes for our weekly team dinners.”

The coach went on to say, “The Harrison game proves my point: Tatiana, Lia, Kaelyn, and Carter were all out due to minor injuries. Every player on the roster picked up their game to get a win against a very fast and physical Harrison team.”

Asked about the difference between coaching boys and girls, Savage says a girls’ coach has to be a good listener. Girls are more willing to share their personal issues, and a leader has to be sensitive to their emotional struggles and address these issues immediately and directly so they can be resolved and not affect the level of play.

In addition, this group is very superstitious and has a myriad of rituals: sitting in the same seats on the bus, using the same pre-game cheer (“TOGETHER!”), listening to “Push” by Kat DeLuna during passing lines, “All I Do is Win” by Dj Khaled as they walk out, and “The Cupid Shuffle” during possession.

Although he would prefer to underplay talk of national rankings, Savage concedes it seems to be the talk of the town. “It spurs excitement for not just the team, but future players and the community as a whole.” Rich and the team were thrilled, for example, with the outpouring of support from the community at the recent Saturday games. One was a morning game against Immaculate Heart of New Jersey, the other a night game against North Rockland that conflicted with the boys’ away game at Harrison. “The fans, including the boys’ fans, showed up in droves to root on the girls team. We loved that.”

Savage concluded, “We know we have a huge target on our backs, and we will work each game to be successful.” They already are.

— By Melanie Cane and Mitch Silver

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