NEWFIELD — Our Lady of Mercy Academy senior Sarah Pustizzi wiped away her tears, cleared her throat, and delivered a stirring rendition of the National Anthem on Tuesday before the Villagers’ season-opening high school softball game against Pleasantville.
The Villagers’ catcher and leadoff hitter, doesn’t really enjoy singing in front of large crowds, but performed as a way of paying tribute to former OLMA coach Jamie Cook, who died on March 15 at age 38 after contracting a virus.
“I thought I was going to start crying, but I knew coach Cook would have wanted me to sing it well,” said Pustizzi of the Milmay section of Buena Vista Township. “She was one of the few people who could get me to sing in public. She even talked me into doing the National Anthem at prom last year.
“She was more than a coach to me and everyone else here. She was a teacher, a mentor, a best friend. We saw her every day and she was always so full of life. It’s just really tough for us, especially since this has happened before.”
Cook’s death came almost two years after OLMA’s athletic program was rocked by another tragedy.
On May 20, 2012, girls soccer coach Phil Caporale, a 31-year-old Vineland resident, was killed in a car crash in Franklin Township.
“The whole thing is just so crazy,” said Pustizzi after the Villagers’ 18-1 victory. “Soccer and softball are the only two sports I play, and we lost both coaches. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this, it’s that God only gives you what He thinks you can handle.”
About 100 players, coaches, faculty, friends and family members gathered at the softball field to honor Cook’s memory during an emotional, touching ceremony.
Almost everyone wore a T-shirt that sported a heart-shaped softball and the message “Forever In Our Hearts, Coach Cook, OLMA Softball.” The players’ green-and-gold uniforms also featured a black patch with “Coach Cook” on it that they will wear the entire season, and they tied green “Coach Cook” ribbons in their hair.
During the ceremony, OLMA athletic director Michele McGrath fought back tears while delivering a speech at home plate that ended with the announcement that the field would now be called Jamie S. Cook Softball Field.
McGrath and the team then presented Cook’s mother, Jeri Patrick, of Blue Ridge, Ga., with a framed plaque that contained Jamie’s jersey and a softball autographed by the entire team.
More than a coach
“Whenever anyone ever needed help, she was always there to chip in,” McGrath said. “But she really loved softball. She was always so excited when the season came around, so she could coach her girls. I’m sure she is looking down on us right now.”
To her current and former players, she was not just the softball coach.
A native of Hampton, Hunterdon County, Cook also taught health and physical education at OLMA and came into daily contact with the 130 students in the tiny, all-girls school.
“She was not only my softball coach, she was also my mentor, a great teacher and a friend,” said 2013 OLMA graduate Giana Vozzi, an Egg Harbor Township resident who is now a freshman at Fordham University. “She was always there for me and for everyone.
“She had a great sense of humor. When I first got my driver’s license, I took my car to school and my mother gave coach Cook the spare key. For weeks, she would mess with my car, changing the mirrors around, moving it to a different parking space, and stuff. I thought I was going crazy until I finally figured out it was her.”
Cook was about to begin her 11th season with the softball team, having served as junior-varsity coach for two seasons and varsity coach for eight, according to McGrath.
And she both coached and taught health and physical education at OLMA while dealing with psoriasis, an autoimmune disease that forced her to wear sweatpants and a long-sleeved shirt, regardless of the weather.
But she was excited about coaching again this season. On Feb. 19, the Newfield resident wrote on her Twitter account: “IT’S ALMOST SOFTBALL SEASON AGAIN.” A day later, she wrote: “Counting down the days until softball starts up again. SO SOON!!!!”
That was also about the time she came down with a virus. According to McGrath, she died just two weeks after first becoming sick.
“Jamie was a very close friend of mine,” said Melissa Connor, Cook’s former assistant coach who is serving as head coach this season. “She was just like family to me. We had been talking and texting about softball since January. She was really excited.
“Before the game today, I told the girls to focus because that’s what Jamie would have wanted. I was very proud of them today because they played hard and had her deep in their hearts. We dedicated this game to her, and we’re dedicating this season to her.”
When the Villagers needed a spark on Tuesday, they turned to Pustizzi. At the start of each inning, she gathered the team around her and led them in a cheer before they raced out to their positions.
After the game, Pustizzi packed her shin guards and chest protector into a bag, shook hands with the Pleasantville players, hugged her coaches and teammates, then headed for the parking lot.
On her way to the car, she looked at the picture of Cook hanging on the right-field fence, then glanced over at the soccer field.
“I’ve got to be a leader for the team this year,” said Pustizzi, who is headed to James Madison University in the fall to study nursing. “This is the first time most of the girls have had to deal with something like this because they didn’t play for coach Caporale.
“I just keep telling them that (Cook and Caporale) are up there watching us and they would want us to keep putting our hearts into every game. You can’t stop. Life doesn’t stop for anyone. That’s one of the lessons coach Cook taught me.”
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