Four years later she had become the best high school hammer thrower in the nation.
“It was the way he (Palazzo) encouraged me that very first day in gym class,” said Figueroa. “I felt like I was being seen. Some students need that motivation and support. I enjoyed it being noticed. It motivated me.”
Figueroa recalls another special moment from her sophomore year. She placed fifth at the indoor nationals and earned All American honors for the first time.
“I was so new to the sport,” said Figueroa. “I didn’t understand what that (All American) meant.”
Congratulations to Classical’s Robert Palazzo, who has been selected as the 2020 National Track & Field Coach of the Year by the NFHS Coaches Association.
READ MORE: https://t.co/vBZHKdxnnL@ClassicalHSPVD @NFHS_Org pic.twitter.com/hTRgG9Sb2D
— RIIL (@RIIL_sports) January 26, 2021
“All I knew was that I took fifth place. I didn’t think that was a big deal. I didn’t understand that I was going to have a future in it, but he (Palazzo) did. He believed in me.,” said Figueroa. “I can’t even describe the look he gave me. He hugged me and said ‘I’m so proud of you. You’re going to do big things.’ That meant so much to me. I’ll never forget that moment.”
Big proved to be an understatement. Under Palazzo’s guidance, Figueroa became the best thrower in the county; the national champion. The multi-time All-American then received a full scholarship to UMASS where she is now a freshman.
“I see him as more than a coach…I see him as a mentor,” said Figueroa. “He really helped me in that stage of my life that can be very difficult. High school is a very challenging stage for kids. He helped me find a purpose to go and motivate me to take care of myself…do good in school and go to college. He really helped me learn to believe in myself.”
Palazzo has dedicated himself to helping student-athletes believe in themselves for more than 30 years.
The longtime Classical track and field coach, educator and Athletic Director has served in the Providence School system for more than three decades. A former All-American thrower at Central who went on to have a successful career at URI, Palazzo has been the Classical AD for 25 years and the track and field coach for 31. He also coached football for 28. His dedication to student athletes has led to quite a bit of success. He has produced several national caliber throwers and directed several teams to championships.
Palazzo wears a million hats, serves on several boards, and leads countless organizations. The 54 year-old’s mission has been consistent since he first began coaching when he was just 23: to motivate and develop student-athletes. – on and off the field.
Palazzo’s efforts have not gone unnoticed.
His success has led to numerous awards and honors. One of the most prestigious was bestowed on Palazzo recently when he was named the 2020 NFHS National Track & Field Coach of the Year.
Figuroa wasn’t surprised he was named the best track and field coach in the country.
“He loves helping kids out. He was a great athlete himself who loves giving back and giving kids opportunities,” said Figeuroa.
Palazzo was determined to provide an opportunity for student-athletes when Covid-19 cancelled the 2020 spring sports season.
“It was such a bad time,” he said. “To watch seniors lose their season was heartbreaking. We had so many talented kids who deserved to compete and finish their senior year.”
So Palazzo, the President of the RI (Track) Coach Associations, gathered the state’s track and field coaches and officials and produced a championship meet. Approximately 140 athletes competed at the meet held in August at Providence’s Conley Stadium.
In the midst of Covid, it wasn’t easy to pull off the meet. But Palazzo was adamant.
“We didn’t break any rules.. We did everything we were required to do,” said Palazzo
That meant washing the mat after every single jump, spraying the sand for each long jump and providing each competitor with his or her own hammer or discus.
“Only one kid could run in a heat,” he said. “It took two days to get through the meet, but we did it,” said Palazzo. “We held the only championship meet in the country.”
— NFHS (@NFHS_Org) January 25, 2021
“I have a feeling the meet led to the nomination for the Coach of the Year Award, but that wasn’t the purpose or my mission,” said Palazzo. “The goal was just to get the kids to get something at the end. They got the marks they deserved. I had a lot of help putting that meet on. A lot of coaches and officials volunteered their time. Everyone volunteered. It was an amazing event. The kids deserved to have the meet. We followed the rules and made it happen.”
He has never been fueled by recognition. The awards continue to pile up, but still Palazzo remains humble and doesn’t veer from his mission to support student athletes.
Weeks after he received national recognition, Palazzo is still overwhelmed by the messages he has received from mentors, colleagues, friends and several of his former athletes.
“The best part is kids emailing and texting and sending me messages through Social Media,” said Palazzo. “The outcry of wonderful notes…..people I haven’t heard from in years. I didn’t see this one coming. It brings back memories of the journey to get here.”
He received dozens of messages including a hand-written note from Debbie Bustin, who Palazzo student taught under more than 30 years ago.
“She took the time to pen a note to me,” said Palazzo. “I haven’t seen her in a long time. Incredible.”
He also heard from several of his former athletes including Robert Señeres who graduated 25 years ago. Señeres went on to have an extensive career in the military. He was inducted into the Classical Hall of Fame in 2008, but was unable to attend the ceremony. He now lives in Hawaii.
“I haven’t seen him in 20 years,” said Palazzo. “It was unbelievable to hear from him.”
“Coach Palazzo demonstrated resourceful opportunities when they’re were no resources,” said Señeres.
“We were on a dusty field that was unkempt. Our track workouts were running on the street, along the walking path of Triggs Memorial golf course, sharing space with Mount Pleasant High or in the ladder well of the gymnasium. We were diverse, inner city kids. Yes there were the 1%, but that was part of the diversity. Regardless, on the pitch or track, we were merit based student athletes regardless of social class.
Señeres noted Palazzo focussed on the basics. That was the key to success.
“I can closely recall the all city track meet. Coach asked me to throw the discus in the meet,” Señeres remembered. “I typically participated in hurdling and pole vaulting events, not exactly the weight throwing build. He sent me to Coach Al Morro, a legend/mentor to both Coach Palazzo and the team. Coach Morro worked with me that week, and during the weekend (at the) city meet, I earned the first place spot. This opportunity was successful, because Coach Palazzo instilled the basics into all of us.”
Palazzo also heard from1996 Classical grad Mike Orsini, who is now a teacher and coach in Lincoln.
“My memories under your tutelage bring back lessons of character, morals, strength, fairness, compassion, dignity, hard work, and self-worth. You treated every single athlete, regardless of skin color or creed, with respect and pride, while giving students a taste of family under a common color—— purple. Thank you for your dedication and lessons that have carried us all on and off the field.“
“I think this is what we were in this business for,” said Palazzo.
Palazzo cherishes words spoken by his mentor Morro, who spent 55 years building a dynasty at Classical.
“He used to say. ‘There’s nothing older than yesterday’s newspaper. It wraps today’s garbage’. Meaning awards lose their luster, they fall part paper…articles get thrown in trash, but the stuff that lasts is all of those memories. It’s been great.”