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Tampa Prep’s Carol Chalu, winner of 12 state volleyball titles, dies after long illness

The Midwest native also was believed to be Florida’s first female athletic director.
 
A Tampa Prep volleyball player spontaneously picks up Carol Chalu, the school's athletic director, as Chalu hands out gold medals following the Terrapins' victory in the Class 2A state final in 2001. Chalu won 12 state titles in 21 seasons as Tampa Prep coach and spent more than 30 years as the school's athletic director.
A Tampa Prep volleyball player spontaneously picks up Carol Chalu, the school's athletic director, as Chalu hands out gold medals following the Terrapins' victory in the Class 2A state final in 2001. Chalu won 12 state titles in 21 seasons as Tampa Prep coach and spent more than 30 years as the school's athletic director. [ ROBERT BURKE | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published May 24, 2022|Updated May 24, 2022

TAMPA — Former Tampa Prep volleyball coach Carol Chalu, who helped craft the Terrapins program into a state dynasty while doubling as the school’s athletic director, passed away last Wednesday following a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s Disease.

The first female athletic director in the state and a member of the Florida High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame, Chalu was 71 and had been residing in Largo. The Tampa Prep volleyball court is named in her honor, and the Tampa Bay Times in 2018 ranked her ninth on its list of the 50 greatest coaches — from the pro to prep levels — in bay area history.

“She’s the mother, she’s the trailblazer,” said longtime Terrapins boys basketball coach Joe Fenlon, whom Chalu hired fresh out of college in August 1983. “Kids that will never have met her or heard of her benefit from her and her dedication to her sport.”

An Ohio native who graduated from the University of Illinois-Chicago, Chalu had virtually no sports background outside of horseback riding when she moved to the bay area with then-husband Randy Dagostino in 1976. The couple had been lured by Chalu’s younger sister, Lauren, already a member of the Tampa Prep faculty.

“(Lauren) was asked by the headmaster (George Wolfenden), ‘Do you know anybody that could possibly run a sports program?’” recalled Dagostino, who was divorced from Chalu in the early 1980s but remained good friends with his ex-wife.

The two left their Chicago teaching gigs — Randy at a private school, Carol as a third-grade public-school teacher — for Tampa, and essentially laid the groundwork for the Terrapins’ fledgling athletic program. Carol and Lauren coached the girls sports; Randy served as athletic director while coaching boys soccer, boys basketball and baseball.

Teaching themselves and their pupils concurrently in virtually every sport, they excelled while practically still living out of boxes. Her first winter on campus, Chalu led the Terrapins girls basketball team to the Class 1A state title.

Three years later, the couple guided the school to its first volleyball state crown. Dagostino left the following year for the athletic-director gig at Berkeley Prep.

As her volleyball astuteness grew and her coaching chops became refined, Chalu blossomed into an intense competitor with a meticulous attention to detail and an astounding knack for molding athletes with modest skills and/or size into elite competitors.

“She would’ve been one of the first ones to tell you how hard she had to work really to learn the sport,” Fenlon said.

“And I think that’s one of the things that drove her. She was a very driven person. She also was very, very organized. We all talk about having practice plans, I think Carol knew exactly what she wanted to get accomplished every day. And she had kids who bought into the process, that if we do everything that we’re working on, we’ll have an opportunity to win.”

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Former Tampa Prep volleyball coach Carol Chalu, center and predecessors Mike Flynn (left) and Paul McAdoo attend a volleyball court dedication in Chalu's honor. Chalu, who died Monday after a lengthy illness, won 12 state titles as Terrapins volleyball coach.
Former Tampa Prep volleyball coach Carol Chalu, center and predecessors Mike Flynn (left) and Paul McAdoo attend a volleyball court dedication in Chalu's honor. Chalu, who died Monday after a lengthy illness, won 12 state titles as Terrapins volleyball coach. [ Tampa Tribune ]

On Chalu’s watch, the Terrapins would win 11 more state volleyball crowns over the next two decades, including six in a row from 1980-85. During that time, she and Dagostino also launched what is believed to be the state’s first club-volleyball program (Tampa Bay Juniors), sending the sport into another stratosphere competitively.

“She held people to standards and wouldn’t let them be average,” said USF volleyball coach Jolene Shepardson, a 1998 Tampa Prep graduate who as Jolene Patton helped the program win three state titles.

“She had a good way of just interacting with us and communicating with us, being there for us, not allowing us to just go through the motions in any shape or form. She inspired us to win titles and be our best.

“Even back then in nutrition and our strength workouts, she was probably innovative beyond her years, because I look back and not many people were talking about that stuff as they do now.”

Christi Newkirk Zettel, a 1985 Tampa Prep graduate who played on four state championship teams as a 5-foot-6 outside hitter, recalls Chalu handing out a team schedule at the beginning of the season that included the dates of the state tournament.

“It was like, ‘This is when the season ends,’ not, ‘Here’s districts and hopefully we’ll go farther,’” Zettel said. “It was district, regions, sections, state. They were all on the calendar.”

That inner drive for excellence only intensified when her ex-husband became Berkeley Prep’s volleyball coach in 1983. Chalu and Dagostino, who remained neighbors in South Tampa for years, developed one of the area’s most intense, intriguing high school rivalries steeped in mutual respect.

For 20 consecutive seasons (1980-99), either Berkeley or Tampa Prep — or sometimes both — won a state volleyball title. Years after her divorce, Terrapins players still affectionally referred to Chalu as “Coach Dag.”

“She (was) just a very disciplined individual,” said Dagostino, who won 15 state championships at Berkeley. “She had an amazing message that no matter what she was trying to get across to kids, they believed her.”

In 21 seasons, Chalu amassed a 602-100 record as volleyball coach that included two state runner-up finishes in addition to the dozen state titles. She stepped down after more than 30 years as athletic director in 2010.

“Great lady,” Dagostino said.

“Her bravery opened so many doors for me and just wanting to dream a dream and not accepting no as an answer,” said current Tampa Prep coach Leanna Taylor, a 1995 graduate who won three state titles on Chalu’s teams and later coached Plant High to five consecutive state championships (2006-2010)

“To take over this program at Tampa Prep, every day when I walk in there, I feel Carol, I feel her hard work, I work in her name. The girls know about Carol. ... Every day she’s living with us.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls