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Plant principal leaves Russo without contract

Pat Russo, who won 96 games in six season as the Panthers' coach, says he respects the decision of principal Eric Bergholm but feels singled out.

By FRANK PASTOR

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 1, 2001


TAMPA -- Three days after his team's first-round playoff exit, Plant baseball coach Pat Russo learned his contract would not be renewed.

Russo was informed of principal Eric Bergholm's decision during a meeting Friday at the school. The two met with athletic director Laura Figueredo on Monday to confirm the decision.

Bergholm wants to tie the job to a teaching position, Figueredo said. Russo works with former principal Vince Sussman in operations in the school system.

"It's more favorable to have the coaching staff at the school," Figueredo said. "Coaches can work with the kids, and they have somebody to talk to when they're there."

Figueredo said the decision was Bergholm's alone and didn't reflect any dissatisfaction with Russo's performance.

"It's basically the principal's decision what he does with the coaching staff," she said.

Bergholm could not be reached for comment.

Russo, who coached Plant for six seasons, said he respects the decision but wonders why he was singled out when several other coaches do not teach at the school.

"It hurts," said Russo, 33. "I've done everything in the world for Plant High School the past six years."

The position is the third coaching job that has been opened since Bergholm became principal in July.

Kimi Hellenberg was hired as physical education teacher and volleyball coach, replacing Gary Larkin. Science teacher Heather Wakefield replaced Starla Howard as dancero, or dance team, coach.

A group of baseball parents met Monday to discuss Russo's situation. It plans to speak on the coach's behalf at tonight's school board meeting.

Russo led Plant to a 96-47 record in six seasons, including a 16-10 mark this year. The Panthers opened the season as Baseball America's 30th-ranked team, but lost six of their first 15 games and were ousted from the playoffs with Tuesday's 8-7 loss to Wharton in the Class 5A, District 11 semifinals.

Despite the disappointing end to a once-promising season, Russo hoped to return to the team.

"When you talk about raising in six years $233,000 for the program and you have 61 kids selected all-Western Conference, 34 players that are playing in college that received college scholarships, two Tony Saladino championships, two-time coach of the year (honors) and 96 total wins, that's tough not to go back," Russo said.

Russo, whose wife, Trisha, is pregnant with the couple's first child, said he can make up the $1,500 supplemental coaching salary he made with a week's worth of lessons. He also said he will continue to work in the school system and pursue other coaching opportunities. Blake and Robinson currently have openings.

"I just want to thank Plant High School for everything they did for me in the past six seasons," he said. "I truly wish them the best of luck, and maybe our paths will meet again."

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