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Valley loses a legend

June 12, 2019
Nik Zirounis , The Town Crier

The word "legend" is tossed around rather casually when describing coaches and athletes.

Last week, the Austintown community truly did lose a man in which that moniker seemed invented for. Longtime high school head football coach Phil Annarella unexpectedly passed away at his home at the age of 70. Annarella spent the past 12 years of his 43-year coaching career at Fitch where he guided the Falcons to numerous state playoff appearances. His fantastic 246-146-3 coaching record was compiled while coaching at East Liverpool, The Rayen School, Warren Western Reserve, Warren Harding, Hickory, Niles and Fitch. He had the unenviable task of leading the Harding team after it merged with Reserve 1990. All he did with that potential clash of egos was win a state championship with a perfect record. Annarella wasn't only perfect during that title winning season, he was equally undefeated as a person if you ask some of his peers.

"He was a great man," said veteran Canfield head football coach Mike Pavlansky. "He was always willing to help others. His teams were always very well coached and competed at a high level. He's going to be missed."

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Phil Annarella

Perhaps Fitch's biggest rival in the All American Conference is Boardman. Despite the disdain the two schools have for each other on the gridiron, Spartan head coach Joe Ignazio often looked to Annarella for guidance. He was never turned away.

"(Phil) was open when I would call him or sit and talk with him," Ignazio said. "He would offer advice on things related to the game whether it was scheduling, schemes or league stuff. He made me better in knowing how hard you had to prepare a team against him. He is a true coaching legend in the valley, and he will be truly missed. Our hearts go out to his family and the entire Fitch Falcon program."

If the opinions of two opposing coaches doesn't sum up the type of impact Annarella had on everyone he met, then the thoughts from one of his colleagues at Fitch should. Falcon head softball coach Steve Ward has been a part of the Fitch community from his days as a student, as an assistant to his wife Melody on the softball team and as the head man himself. Ward's somber tone while discussing Annarella's passing was extremely evident.

"It's heartbreaking," said Ward. "Anyone that came in contact with him knew he was a man of principal and character. He would always take the time to talk with me about softball. If we had a hard loss Coach would find me in the school just to check in and encourage me. Coach had a big heart and I'm thankful for the relationship we had."

Annarella's absence from a few appointments last week triggered red flags throughout the school. The most glaring gathering that the coach missed was a Special Olympics event held at Fitch's stadium where Falcon players and coaches were scheduled to volunteer. The players were emotionally pulled into the locker room and told of the unfortunate news. Grief counselors were set to be at Fitch this past Monday to help the kids get through this difficult and sudden situation. Shortly after Annarella was found at his home, word spread like wildfire on social media and other outlets.

"Sad news today for Fitch football," was posted on the Fitch Football Twitter page last weekend. "(Coach Annarella) was truly an amazing man both on and off the field."

Fitch's Athletic Director Jim Penk spoke to reporters on behalf of Falcon Nation.

"It's a tough loss for the entire Austintown and Warren communities as well as his family," he said.

From a personal perspective, I am as deeply saddened by Coach Annarella's loss as anyone. His honesty, integrity and love for football were unmatched. Whenever information was needed, he would instantly answer my call or send me an email. That's why I was shocked when a couple of attempts to reach him just last Thursday and Friday about news of Fitch being dropped down to Division II for 2019 went unanswered. When voicemails weren't returned, I became suspicious. My heart sank when I found out why. My weekly Sunday night phone chats about the previous week's game and the following week's foe were a staple of my schedule for the past dozen years. The way Annarella would handle those calls with such dignity, win or lose, was greatly appreciated. Anytime he would send me an email he would sign it "Coach A." That "A" of course was for Annarella, but it could have meant amazing, awesome or ambassador, which he was for high school football in our area. It could have also signified the grade he received as a human being. Now the man who coached teams with the names Falcons, Red Dragons and Raiders gets to lead a group of angels. Rest peacefully Coach A. We're all better people for knowing you.



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