Beloved Milford volleyball coach ailing, still a winner

Sunday, 30 July 2017, 04:50:36 PM. A third bout with cancer is forcing a legendary Milford High School volleyball coach to step down after more than four decades, 700 victories and countless students’ lives touched.“It’s very hard to walk away when coaching has been your life for so many years,” Linda Zacchilli told the Herald. “But I know what I am up against and the prognosis is a little bit tougher to take this time around,

A third bout with cancer is forcing a legendary Milford High School volleyball coach to step down after more than four decades, 700 victories and countless students’ lives touched.

“It’s very hard to walk away when coaching has been your life for so many years,” Linda Zacchilli told the Herald. “But I know what I am up against and the prognosis is a little bit tougher to take this time around, knowing this isn’t going to be the last time I have to face this challenge.”

Zacchilli, 67, started the girls’ volleyball program at Milford High School in 1974 and started the boys’ program 11 years later. She has amassed a combined record of 706-136 and her teams have won 26 league titles and 11 district championships. Zacchilli’s coaching resume earned her a spot in the state’s girls volleyball coaches’ hall of fame and numerous coach-of-the-year honors.

In the fall of 2009, Zacchilli was diagnosed with an endometrial, or uterine, cancer. She had surgery and returned in time to coach the boys in the spring. Zacchilli had a second bout with cancer in 2015 and was in remission just 18 months before the disease struck for a third time.

Her doctors have said future periods of remission may become shorter.

“I can’t get rid of this cancer. It’s going to recur,” Zacchilli said. “I am having a hard time wrapping my head around that.”

Sitting in front of a trophy case filled with mementos of championship teams and beneath banners denoting the years capped by league or district titles, Zacchilli reflected less on the victories and more on the young women and men who made them possible.

“I have had some amazing people that I have coached,” she said. “It’s great to see them in their life professions and being successful.”

One of those former players, Brittany Hill, said seeing her coach battle cancer played a role in steering her toward her current career as an oncology nurse at Dana Farber.

“When she was diagnosed, she took it with grace,” Hill, 23, said. “She is a tough cookie, that coach. She is a woman with a lot of resilience and she doesn’t go down without a fight. She didn’t on the volleyball court and she isn’t going to now — she is going to fight it until she beats it.”

Zacchilli and Hill ran into each other unexpectedly last week at the renowned Boston cancer treatment hospital.

“It was a pretty emotional moment,” Hill said. “It made everything come full circle. We were holding hands and talking and I was kneeling down in front of her — it was almost like we were back in the huddle.”

Even as she retires from coaching, Zacchilli said she hopes to spend as much time as possible around the program she built into a powerhouse.

“It has been my privilege to have that opportunity,” Zacchilli said. “I couldn’t have picked a better profession and I don’t have any regrets.”

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