By BOB ETTINGER
For the Star Beacon
Greg Zannelli grew up in Ashtabula and graduated from Harbor High School. Except for the time he attended Youngstown State and the four years he served in the Navy, he has spent his entire life in the city.
After years of coaching and teaching in his home school district, he is taking over the athletic director’s position at Lakeside with the departure of former AD Rob McGruder. Those ties to Ashtabula Area City Schools have always been and should continue to be a great asset.
“(Being a graduate of Harbor will help) tremendously,” Zannelli said. “I reflect on my days in the classroom and I get these kids because I sat in the same seats. A lot of people supported me when I was a kid and those people are still supporting the kids. Those people have said they were glad to have me. I was happy to get the position. I’m assuming that will help in the job.”
Zannelli, a 1990 Harbor grad, served 10 years as a cross country and track coach as well as a teacher of American History and AP human geography at Lakeside prior to taking the AD position. He learned from some good people along the way.
“I feel I do,” Zannelii said. “I spent 10 years coaching cross country and track. I worked for five ADs during that span of time. Hopefully, I can take the best qualities they had and apply them. Being organized, being prepared, being overprepared (is a good quality to have).”
Zannelli was drawn to the position for a chance to work more closely with the Dragons’ coaches, especially new football coach Frank Hall.
“The opportunity to work with Coach Hall,” Zannelli said. “Just being born and raised in Ashtabula and knowing I could give more to the community.
“However, there have always been great sports at Lakeside — especially the minor sports like the one I coached, cross country, and tennis. It’s nice to know people are excited for football again.”
Replacing McGruder won’t be easy, but Zannelli has learned from his best qualities.
“Mr. McGruder left some big shoes to fill,” Zannelli said. “He had professionalism, he took care of all the sports without having one he favored and he had an open-door policy so he could be there for the coaches and student-athletes.”
McGruder has taken Zannelli under his wing and is helping to guide him over the summer. There will also be help from other places.
“I’ve been lucky enough that Mr. McGruder has taken some of his personal time and been in the office showing me how to do this and that,” Zannelli said. “He has shown me so much. I can’t stress enough the people I work with and the people in the community and how much they’ve helped. I feel I have so much support. I’m not intimidated or afraid because I have so many people around me who will support me.”
Zannelli will enjoy guiding the athletic program toward building on the success of the past.
“The fun parts will be enjoying the success we’ve had with more coming, being more a part of the community, the connection I’ll have with more kids outside the cross country program and classroom and having more of a connection with the community,” Zannelli said.
There is a down side to taking over as AD in these financial times, however.
“The activity fee (is not something I’m looking forward to),” Zannelli said. “But it’s unavoidable. If we can get a levy passed, hopefully I won’t have to deal with it anymore. Not every student can compete because of that, but it’s necessary. We couldn’t have a sports program without it.”
That said, the school does have a bit of support.
“There have been community members who have called and asked how they can help the student-athletes who need help,” Zannelli. “We’ll keep depending on the community until we can get proper financial support from the community. And what wonderful people they are for helping.”
Leaving the classroom and giving up his position as coach was not easy. But Zannelli doesn’t quite see his new position as being different.
“I still see myself as a teacher and a coach,” Zannelli said. “That will always be a part of who I am. Any opportunity to teach young people… there’s nothing better than that.”
“It’s very difficult. It’s not just cross, I’m stepping away from the classroom, as well. I’m very touched that the parents of my students and the parents of my runners have come up and said they were happy I got the new position, but were saddened I was leaving the classroom and my coaching obligations.”
He will miss his time with the students, too.
“I will miss the non-athletes,” Zannelli said. “There are such wonderful students at Lakeside. Every one of them changed me, as I hope I changed them.”
In his new job, Zannelli will get a chance to see some athletes other than his runners compete. That doesn’t mean he will forget his old troops, though.
“Absolutely (I am looking forward to seeing all of our different teams compete),” Zannelli said. “However, I also want to have time be at the cross country meets, too. I didn’t want to walk away from cross country. I will try to be at their events because, usually, no one is there but the parents. But I’m excited to be part of the other events and watching the other teams have success.”
With talk of the Premier Athletic Conference, in which the Dragons compete, contracting or combining with other leagues, Zannelli may have some difficult decisions ahead. But he isn’t ready to entertain those possibilities just yet.
“No. 1, we definitely want to stay in the PAC,” Zannelli said. “Lakeside needs that kind of competition, but I haven’t put much thought into the PAC breaking apart. If there’s a different alignment, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. I love the PAC. The minor sports have held their own in the PAC with cross country, tennis and track. It’s just the ones everyone pays attention to, basketball and football, that have had struggled of late.”
With the school district hiring younger coaches like Hall and new volleyball coach Alyssa Hill, Zannelli knows the school is making a commitment to its young athletes.
“I’m all about stability,” Zannelli said. “I want people who are invested in the community. Coach Hall and some of the others, being from Ashtabula, know what we’re about. That’s part of the reason I hoped to get the position. I graduated from Harbor. That’s what we want from our coaches.”
Zannelli feels he is in a good position to guide those young coaches.
“With new coaches, it takes time to change the culture of a program,” he said. “Kids buying in gives a coach the opportunity to put a program in and leads to success. Hopefully, I can help guide them past some of those pitfalls.”
Zannelli, 41, is married to a teacher, Lindsay, who teaches at Lake Erie Intermediate, and has two sons, Obi, 4, and Luke, 2. His boys will have a good idea of what their father does and will be a part of the position. Lindsay will also be a big part of the equation.
“I’ve been thinking on this,” Zannelli said. “They’re young. They know what Daddy does. I’m definitely needed at home, but they’ll be able to come to games. Lindsay is a wonderful mother who does a great job when I’m gone.”
Ettinger is a freelance writer from Ashtabula.