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Bifulco keeps 'em in stitches and wins

John Bifulco just needs a drummer to hit a rim shot for him and a few people with senses of humor.

The Hernando High School boys head coach is among those rare coaches who can make his players laugh while he's teaching them the game.

The 52-year-old knows how to win in two states. The Huntington, N.Y., native's Huntington High boys captured three league championships when he was guiding the Long Island team.

Bifulco then came to Florida and made them laugh and win in Hernando County. His Leopards recently recorded his 101st victory in the county.

Bifulco played at Huntington. After graduating from high school, he served in the U.S. Army in Germany. He came back and decided he wanted to coach but was told he had to be a teacher first.

He then played at Jacksonville University as a sweeper back. He graduated in 1979 and became an assistant boys coach at Huntington. He took the helm of the program in 1981. Six years later, the 20-1-1 squad won its conference.

Like so many others, Bifulco felt the urge to "come on down" to Florida. He moved to Hernando County in 1990 and became the first girls head coach at Springstead in 1990.

Bifulco found a speedy forward in the Eagles program. Jenny O'Sullivan led them in scoring for three years and to the regionals in 1994. She was not only an outstanding player but an exceptional student, taking her game to Stanford University.

Later, O'Sullivan turned pro and played outside defender for the New York Power. She now is working on Wall Street.

Bifulco moved on also, leaving Springstead for the first time in 1995. He returned in '99 to coach the boys. He guided them one year, and they finished 14-5-2. He coached the girls from 2000-2001, compiling a 14-5-2 mark.

Bifulco then moved cross county to Hernando High in 2002. He still makes players laugh while they learn the game. However, the wins have been harder to come by. Through this year, he is 11-29-2 at Hernando, including a 3-7-1 finish this season.

Bifulco seems to have been more successful with girls soccer.

"Girls are easier to coach," Bifulco said. "I think you can get girls motivated a lot more easily than boys."

It's a matter of attitude.

"Boys work on natural ability, whereas girls will work at improving their natural ability," he said. "Girls went out there and played the game trying to be the best players they could be. Boys went out, trying to be (British soccer superstar David) Beckham. They are into idol worship. The girls don't try to be Mia Hamm. If they can get a college scholarship out of this, all is well and good."

Bifulco said he has learned that Spring Hill is more receptive to soccer than Brooksville.

"I found out that at Hernando High School, it is more of a football and baseball place," he said. "It's hard to get the numbers out. This is the first time I was able to get a JV team. If you don't have a junior varsity team, the kids don't get experienced and you fall behind."

Bifulco teaches math, science and reading to ninth-graders at the alternative school for Hernando County. His mission is to teach athletes how to kick that ball around.

"Sometimes, I think I was put on this earth for soccer," Bifulco said. "I plan on doing this until they name fields after me."

He accepts the fact that not everyone of his players may care about soccer.

"Over the Christmas holidays, I had a 22-man roster, but I was averaging eight kids per day at practices," Bifulco said. "Coaches get frustrated with that. They back away from the game. For me, it is the enjoyment of getting out with the eight kids. I will train the one kid if that is all that shows up."

Oh, and people seem to accept Bifulco's sense of humor. He once jokingly told a sportswriter that he was going to "abuse my kids at halftime."

"I have had a couple of parents ask, "Why isn't my kid playing?' " he said. "But I have never had a complaint about my coaching style."

One athlete from England told Bifulco the player thought the coach was hilarious.

"I've never had a coach who could be so mad and so hilarious at the same time," Bifulco said, quoting the English lad.

Bifuclo wants his athletes to pick up a lot of skills under his tutelage.

"My aspiration is that every time I meet a soccer player, I want him or her to leave me a better player than when he started," Bifulco said.

And it's okay if the kids have a few laughs and wins along the way.