A winner wherever he goes

He was 7 years old and couldn’t stay still. Lou Sorrentino just wasn’t comfortable sitting in the bleachers. As far as he was concerned, the fun was on the field and that’s where he wanted to be next to his father on the sidelines, where he could really watch the Woodrow Wilson varsity football team blow out another Lower Bucks League opponent.

“I wanted to be down on the field and my mom wouldn’t let me,” Sorrentino recalled, smiling at the memory. “I kept pestering her until she finally said I could go down. The only stipulation was I had to sit on the bench. She told me not to move an inch.”

That was a compromise Sorrentino could deal with.

“I thought I was the big cheese,” he said.

Until one of the players was knocked out of bounds right in front of where Sorrentino was sitting.

“He came right at me and jumped over the bench,” Sorrentino said. “I curled up to keep from getting hit, but I didn’t move because I wasn’t supposed to leave the bench. I wanted to be able to go down there again.”

As Sorrentino tells this story, he is preparing to return to the sideline. Only this time he doesn’t need his mother’s permission. The 7-year-old has grown up to become a state championship head coach. The field, like his father before him, is now Sorrentino’s domain.

“I always thought I’d be a coach in some shape or form,” he said.

It was inevitable, really. As good as Sorrentino was as an athlete he set records playing baseball and football at Moravian College the talent to coach is in his blood. He is, after all, a Sorrentino.

A winner, just like his dad.

“I can’t take any credit for his coaching,” said Sorrentino’s father, Lou Sr., who won 141 games during a storied high school and college career that spanned four decades. “He’s been successful because he cares and that’s important. I always thought he’d be good just because of the way he handles kids. He’s a good teacher and he was a good student, which is something I can’t claim.

“He’s good with kids and when you get them on your side they can do miracles.”

Sorrentino’s success at George Mason High School and Culpeper High School is proof that miracles happen. He played a key role in the Mustangs’ resurgence and then spearheaded the Blue Devils’ rise to prominence. In 1999, his Culpeper team won the Division 5 state title.

This fall, he’s in a position where miracles shouldn’t be necessary.

At Hylton High School, winning comes with the territory. That’s what the Bulldogs and Sorrentino have in common.

“I have confidence in what I do as a head coach. I’ve proven that it works,” he said. “I’m coming into this job with that confidence, otherwise it would be overwhelming.”

Leaving Culpeper to take over a Hylton program that won two state championships under Hall of Fame coach Bill Brown wasn’t a simple or easy decision. Sorrentino insists that the safe thing would have been to stay with the Blue Devils, who have won the past six Commonwealth District championships.

“We were just starting to reap the benefits of our new weight room,” Sorrentino said. “We’d only scratched the tip of the iceberg, but I saw an excitement here that I was curious about.”

On a steamy August afternoon, two weeks prior to the season opener, curiosity has given way to competitiveness. The new face of the Bulldogs is seated casually behind a desk in the head coach’s office. He is wearing a Hylton football T-shirt and shorts. A playbook and notes for an upcoming scrimmage game are spread out before him and a game tape from the 2001 season is waiting to be reviewed on a wide-screen television set.

There’s a lot to do before opening day.

“You never have enough time,” he said.

Sorrentino spent most of the preseason just getting familiar with his new job. He set aside time to meet individually with his returning players, evaluated game film and, perhaps most importantly, assembled a coaching staff that will help him incorporate the successful elements of two football programs.

“They’ve been successful here. I didn’t want to change everything. I want to stay true to myself, but I also want to keep the things that have worked well here,” Sorrentino said. “There are some things that are negotiable. If you change everything, it takes a lot longer to learn. We’re adjusting the X’s and O’s to meet the skills of the kids.”

That’s where the coaching staff comes in. Sorrentino believes that delegating authority and getting input from his five varsity assistants John Brown, Mike Thornton, Greg Prifti, Dave Boley and Todd Campbell is vital to the Bulldogs’ success.

“I had no doubt that we’d get along well. They’re all great men and football guys. It’s all about who you surround yourself with. You want winning people around you, people who work hard,” said Sorrentino, who has a unique bond with Brown the son of former coach Bill Brown.

“John idolizes his dad the same way I do. The one area where I envy him is that he’s had a chance to coach with his dad,” he said.

Sorrentino’s dad contributed in other important areas, which is why his high school football coach, Tom Svirsko, described the former Annville-Cleona quarterback as having “the presence of a leader.” How else can you explain a kid turning down Penn State football tickets because his Little League team had a game on the same day?

“That’s how much being part of a team meant to me,” Sorrentino said.

Sorrentino’s success as a coach is a result of similar loyalties and a lifelong pursuit of football knowledge. Though he had an obvious advantage in that arena as a coach’s son, his reputation as a skilled strategist is mostly Sorrentino’s own doing.

When he wasn’t throwing a ball around with neighborhood pals like Herndon football coach Tom Meier, Sorrentino was absorbing future coaching skills by playing Strat-O-Matic board games.

“Lou was ahead of his time. Growing up with a dad as a coach, he was ready to be a head coach at 23. He was so well prepared for a young guy,” said Meier, who reunited with Sorrentino by chance as an assistant coach at Stafford and then talked him into sharing the coaching duties at George Mason in 1988.

“It worked out for the two of us. We moved to Northern Virginia and shared the duties. I was the offensive guy and he was the defensive guy,” Meier said. “When I got offered the Herndon job, Lou is the guy George Mason wanted right away. I wanted him to come with me, but I left it up to him.”

Sorrentino chose Mason, and then Culpeper. But by the time he reached high school, Sorrentino already had a grasp of what wins on the field. As a sophomore he started at quarterback and led his team to a share of the Lancaster-Lebanon League title. Two years later, he came back from a serious knee injury to run the veer offense as a senior.

“My most memorable experience was a game in his senior year where the coaching staff gave him the opportunity to call his own plays on the field,” Svirsko said. “In the first quarter we were up by 21 points and early in the second quarter we scored again. At halftime of that game the coaching staff from the press box suggested that he should have been calling the plays all season.

“A player like Lou, we always called him Mike because in these parts his father is known as Lou, is a coach’s dream,” Svirsko continued. “He was a good student, a clean cut young man, and played three sports [football, basketball, and baseball]. He always carried the presence of a leader, yet had time for everyone – family, school, athletic team, and church.”

Sorrentino still has time for everyone. He’s only officially been at Hylton a few weeks, but he made it a point to schedule one-on-one interviews with each of his returning players. He did the same thing when he took over at George Mason and at Culpeper.

“Kids see through a phony, so I try to be as honest as possible with them,” Sorrentino said.

Laying it on the line is typical of Sorrentino. It’s one of the many lessons he learned from his father.

“I always said to him, you have to be a good listener and be firm at times,” Lou Sr. said. “Players respect that. You’ve got to be up front with them and tell them what’s going on.”

It’s never taken long for athletes to believe in Sorrentino or the way he operates his football programs.

“He’s the best coach I’ve had for any sport. He definitely gets you motivated. He’s a player’s coach – at least he was for me – and he’s a great guy,” said University of Virginia freshman Stefan Orange, who started four seasons at Culpeper.

“He gets the most out of his players, and he knows how to get exactly what he wants. I know he’ll be successful at Hylton.”

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