YORK — During a recent junior varsity football game, a York receiver who had two passes slip from his grasp approached his coach and apologized.
Lynzi Pacitti smiled broadly and reassured the teen-aged boy. She told him he understood what he did wrong and would correct it the next time the ball came his way.
Pacitti, in her first year as an assistant at York High after coaching in the town’s youth football program for three years, laughed about the incident as she recounted it.
“I think some of them had some coaches that yelled at them, so they have some PTSD from that,” she said. “I try to take a different approach.”
Hers is to gain respect and trust by building relationships with players.
“It’s not the yelling and the screaming and the berating,” she said. “It’s more, ‘I’m teaching you how to do this, if you want to do it properly. I’ll put you in a position to make a play or be successful, if you listen.’ ”
Pacitti is one of a handful of women coaching male-only teams in Maine high school sports – and one of two at York High, where Julie Johnson has taken over this fall as the boys’ soccer coach. They are part of a trend that has seen women smash coaching barriers in professional football (Kelsey Martinez in Oakland, Katie Sowers in San Francisco), professional basketball (Becky Hammon in San Antonio and Jenny Boucek in Dallas), NCAA Division I football (Callie Brownson at Dartmouth) and men’s basketball (Edniesha Curry at the University of Maine).
Pacitti, 40, attended York High and played three seasons as a running back and free safety for the Wildcats’ football team before graduating in 1996. She went on to play six seasons in semi-pro women’s leagues in Hawaii and New England (Maine Freeze, Southern Maine Rebels) and coached four years at the semi-pro level both here and in Florida. She is believed to be only the second woman to coach Maine high school football at any level. Kelsey Rush coached the Lisbon High freshman for one season in 2011.
Pacitti is York’s junior varsity coach and in charge of special teams on varsity. She also assists with the defense.
Senior Shane Pidgeon, a safety and wide receiver who scored two touchdowns in York’s 34-13 victory over Gardiner on Friday night, said players embraced Pacitti right away.
“She knows a lot about football,” said Pidgeon, who mentioned specific techniques Pacitti taught him about turning his hips that have helped him with footwork as a defensive back. “That’s all we’re asking for.”
‘IMPRESSED WITH HER DEDICATION’
Matt Nelson, York’s head football coach, worked under Pacitti in York’s youth program two years ago.
“When I coached under her in the youth program, I was really impressed with her dedication to the kids, the program, her knowledge of the game,” Nelson said. “That is exactly what I wanted to bring up to this level. Helping the younger players transition from youth football to high school football in the JV program, I couldn’t have thought of a better person to do that.”
Johnson, who played soccer at Lewiston High and Clemson University, heads up the York boys’ soccer program this fall after one season as the team’s assistant coach.
An English teacher at York High, she previously coached both girls’ and boys’ teams at a high school in North Carolina before returning to her native Maine, where she was an assistant girls’ coach at Thornton Academy in 2015 and 2016.
Johnson is one of only two female head coaches of boys’ soccer teams in Maine. The other, Carrie Larrabee, is in her second year at Erskine Academy of South China. Previously, Larrabee coached the boys’ varsity at Winslow High from 2009-11.
“In my first experience as a varsity coach, I thought that I probably would have to do some convincing,” Larrabee said. “I thought, ‘How will it be perceived, as a woman coaching these high school boys?’ But there was no issue with the boys at all.”
Larrabee, 39, has three sons and a daughter and took some time off when two of her children were very young. She returned to coaching last fall.
Referees who don’t know her often approach her male assistant, assuming he is the head coach. Occasionally, they mistake her for the team’s trainer.
“That doesn’t bother me at all,” Larrabee said. “Outsiders may look at it differently, but at this point in my coaching career, I don’t feel like there’s anything I need to prove in terms of my coaching ability.”
Johnson declined to be interviewed for this story, saying she preferred to focus on the York players rather than who is coaching them.
“It was definitely a change, but she’s a really great coach,” York senior forward Lucas LaBelle said after Monday night’s 4-0 victory over Wells improved the Wildcats to 3-2-1. “She has plenty of years of experience with soccer and she’s very smart.”
Nick Rainforth, a senior captain and midfielder for York, said his coach’s gender simply isn’t a factor.
“I don’t really see a difference at all,” he said. “She’s very disciplined and she holds us to high expectations. Those are two very good things.”
‘TOUGH TO GET APPLICANTS OVERALL’
Jeff Oliver, the new athletic director at York High, said both Johnson and Pacitti were hired before he arrived, and he counts himself lucky to have them.
“They’re both awesome coaches so it’s really worked out pretty well,” Oliver said. “Our boys’ soccer team and our football team are very well-disciplined and very respectful. It’s pretty impressive under first-year coaches that everything has gone so smoothly.”
In sports such as swimming, cross-country and track and field, where girls and boys often practice together, women coaching boys’ teams is more common, as is the case with Sarah Rubin at Deering, Margo Lake Adams at Maine Coast Waldorf and Diane Fournier at Mt. Ararat.
But among girls’ varsity teams, men dominate the coaching ranks. Of the 16 Western Maine Conference schools with girls’ varsity soccer programs, only one has a female head coach: Carrie Earles shares head coaching duties with George Sherry at Waynflete.
Ross Burdick, athletic director at Waynflete and a past president of the league, expressed surprise that Earles was the only woman.
“It’s just really tough to get applicants overall,” he said. “I feel like when I advertise a position, I’m lucky to get one or two applicants.”
Pacitti, Johnson and Larrabee remain outliers in a field dominated by men. Whether this trend continues remains to be seen, but the path certainly is clearer for more women to follow suit.
“I don’t think of myself as a woman coaching a male team,” Larrabee said. “I’m a soccer coach, and this is my team.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or