The second marriage of Lucien Starzynski and Albuquerque High School began – perhaps fittingly for this particular courtship – in a small town in Italy.
Starzynski was 31. He had gone to Europe for a tryout to see whether he could reinvigorate his playing career.
“I pulled my quad,” he said. “And I realized that this dream of playing soccer was over. That was a crushing moment.”
One door closes, another opens. But rarely do the two coincide so quickly. In this case, they practically overlapped.
That night, in a small hotel room in Poggibonsi, Italy, Starzynski received an email from someone halfway around the world. It was from an Albuquerque High soccer parent who said the school was a looking for a new coach.
Soon, the coach and the school were reunited. And today, the Bulldogs are regarded as one of New Mexico’s most respected programs.
“He sets the bar for us,” senior forward Alex Newell said of Starzynski.
“A coach can give a team a sense of direction, and Lucien has been really good getting us going,” added junior goalkeeper Andrea Seazzu.
Albuquerque High has been a regular postseason participant over the past half-dozen years. But last year, the Bulldogs ventured into new territory, finishing as Class 5A’s No. 1 playoff seed. They suffered a crushing loss in the state semifinals to Volcano Vista. On Tuesday, the Bulldogs smoked the Hawks 4-1 in their first meeting since that semifinal.
AHS (5-1-1) has won four straight, and if there is a single week in which Starzynski’s soccer IQ is going to be tested, this will be it:
The Bulldogs take on Sandia Prep – possibly the best side in Albuquerque, regardless of classification – on Thursday, and then meet undefeated Cibola on Saturday.
“He’s a great coach with a great soccer mind,” Cibola coach Cameron Clarke said of Starzynski. “He’s got a different type of mind that is conducive to great soccer.”
Different, Clarke said, in that his philosophies and tactics are so heavily and distinctly European flavored. Starzynski traveled to Italy frequently as a young man, even during his days as a student at UNM, where he studied foreign languages.
“He’s got a European mind,” Clarke said. “It makes him and his teams very dangerous.”
Starzynski, now 37, had been with AHS as its head coach once before, from 1999-2002, but Starzynski was only 22 when he first was hired by his alma mater, and dearly wanted to succeed for a community he loves unconditionally. It was his first coaching job.
“I simply did not have the experience or knowledge to coach at the high school level,” he said, “and I wasn’t prepared for it.”
Many years later, by the time he had read that email, he felt he had the requisite background.
“You know what they really needed?” Starzynski said. “They needed a belief in the soccer knowledge of their coach. They want a leader that knows the game and understands the game.”
Even then, with this second try, it was an odd coupling. Starzynski and a club coaching friend, Sibby Browne, jointly pitched AHS Principal Tim McCorkle on the merits of co-head coaches and how the two of them could turn the Bulldogs around together.
McCorkle agreed to the unusual setup.
“I just felt, like at the time, my program needed more discipline and we needed more structure,” McCorkle said.
Within a couple of years, Starzynski said, Browne, who also had myriad club obligations, opted out as both realized the Bulldogs needed one man calling the shots.
“We really did need one voice,” Starzynski said. “The kids needed one voice.”
Today, probably no metro-area school has fans as passionate about soccer as Albuquerque High. They have lots to scream about, too, with Starzynski at this program’s center.
As McCorkle said, AHS is more a futbol school than football school.
“This one,” McCorkle said of hiring Starzynski, “was just a jewel.”
Starzynski’s passion for AHS is returned heartily.
“When you coach at Albuquerque High, it’s not just coaching soccer. You are truly a part of the community,” he said. “It goes beyond soccer. That’s why it’s so gratifying.”