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Former South Hadley boys tennis coach Rick Pio, 69, dies

  • Rick Pio, shown in this undated photo, started the South Hadley Recreation Department tennis program and coached the South Hadley High School boys team for 15 years. Pio died Sunday after a short battle with cancer. COURTESY KAREN WALSH PIO

  • Then-South Hadley coach Rick Pio, right, is shown with his wife Karen Walsh Pio and son Dante Pio after a high school match. Pio, who coached the Tigers for 15 years until 2016, died Sunday after a short battle with cancer. COURTESY KAREN WALSH PIO

  • Rick Pio, of South Hadley, skis near Mary Woolley Hall on the Mount Holyoke College campus during a snowstorm Feb. 12, 2019. Pio, who coached the South Hadley High School boys tennis team for 15 years until 2016, died Sunday after a short battle with cancer. STAFF FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 10/7/2019 9:44:41 PM

Rick Pio picked up tennis in his late 20s. He didn’t win a tournament until he turned 30.

Baseball was his sport growing up in Springfield. But Pio fell in love with tennis once he started.

“This is something he took up as an adult and became very core and integral to who he was,” said his son Adrian Pio.

Rick Pio died peacefully early Sunday morning at age 69 after a short battle with an aggressive form of cancer.

He started the South Hadley recreation department’s tennis program and coached boys tennis at South Hadley High School for 15 years before retiring after the 2016 season. A longtime teacher in Westfield, he imparted both the game and its life lessons to generations of South Hadley Tigers. He recruited athletes from other sports to field his teams, directing them away from baseball and lacrosse fields to the tennis courts.

“He never really had any of the tennis studs, he turned guys into really good tennis players,” current South Hadley coach Dan Dubuc said.

Rick Pio helped Dubuc during the transition and asked his former player not to call him ‘coach’ in front of the team so they wouldn’t get mixed signals. Dubuc refused because of everything he learned from Pio.

“I’m thinking, ‘You’re always going to be my coach with everything that you taught us on and off the court,’” Dubuc said. “He taught us how to conduct ourselves as gentlemen, he taught us how to conduct ourselves as young men. Because of that I always called him coach, even in front of the kids.”

When the direction of his health became clear, Rick Pio circulated a letter to close friends and community members to keep them abreast of his health developments and so they could visit and say their farewells. More than 70 people visited in the hospital to share stories and reminisce.

It was a lasting example of his ingrained honesty. Pio didn’t sugar coat anything.

“He was the most honest individual you will ever meet. He had a way of telling you what you needed to know but in a tone that made you want to know it,” said Dubuc, who played three years for Pio in the late 2000s. “Brutally, brutally honest but in a nice way.”

Belchertown tennis coach Zach Siano found that out during his first match leading the Orioles in 2012.

“He pointed out things I was doing wrong, but not in a rude way, just looking out for me,” Siano said. “Someone who was super passionate, always put the kids first. Unbelievable memory.”

Siano tried to introduced himself to Pio before the match, but Pio remembered him from Siano’s high school days at Chicopee Comp. He remembered the strengths and weaknesses of his game.

“It show how much he cared about western Mass. tennis,” Siano said.

Pio possessed a reservoir of passion in the community. He served on the boards of both the Neighbors Helping Neighbors Food Pantry and Arts South Hadley, and volunteered with the Bag the Community food drive and Full Circle Community Garden. Pio designed and built sets for the Michael E. Smith Middle School theater department.

He was an avid cook who enjoyed trying new recipes and loved when his kitchen was full and bustling.

“He was just in it for the community, he was just there and never asked anything back from us,” South Hadley Recreation Director Andy Rogers said. “Just totally committed to the kids and people of South Hadley.”

In his retirement, Pio became a master gardener and kept a well-manicured lawn.

He remained active throughout his life, biking and playing tennis regularly. He cross-country skied in the winter and planned multi-day canoe trips in the summer.

Sports remained an important part of his life whether playing them or watching. Pio was a lifelong Red Sox fan and made sure his family – wife Karen Walsh Pio and sons Devin, Adrian and Dante – made at lease one pilgrimage to Fenway Park every year.

“In 2004 when the Red Sox won the World Series was one of the happiest times I’ve seen him in my adult life,” Adrian Pio said. “That was always near and dear to his heart.”

South Hadley didn’t win a Western Massachusetts championship while Pio coached the Tigers, but his fingerprints were all over the 2018 team that broke through to win the title. He attended many of the matches during that tournament run and watched South Hadley claim the title in person.

“He was the first person to shake my hand. That championship is as much his as it was ours,” Dubuc said. “He was the one who built and established South Hadley tennis.”

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