LITCHFIELD, CONN - Sometimes, the football players on the opposing team would think the woman on the sideline was the manager. Or they would approach her - she had to be the trainer, right? - to tape up their ankles.
"I was like, 'Sorry, guys, uh, you've got to go to the trainer, not me,'" said Jennifer Stango Garzone, the first female head high school football coach in the state. "It happened more so in the beginning and not so much now."
Garzone, an assistant football coach for seven years at Wolcott Tech, became the head coach of MCW United in February after former coach Jamie Coty resigned. MCW United is a co-op team that encompasses Wolcott Tech in Torrington, Housatonic Regional High School in Canaan and Wamogo High in Litchfield.
"Football is probably always known to be not only a male sport, but kind of a man's man sport _ so for a woman to break the barriers down, so to speak ... but Jen's not your typical woman," said MCW assistant Damian Gwinn, who has known Garzone for four years. "She played football. She knows the game. She's not just some random person, that there was nobody there and she was the only one available to take the job. She was more than qualified for it."
It's not known how many female head high school football coaches there are nationally, but Garzone, 35, is not the first. There have been female head high school coaches in Colorado, Florida, Wyoming and Tennessee. Dartmouth hired Callie Brownson as an assistant as the first full-time female coach in Division I football, and since, Brownson has become a full-time coaching intern with the Buffalo Bills.
Brownson went through the NFL's Women's Careers in Football Forum; both the NFL and NBA have been making an effort to hire women in coaching positions.
"I think it's fantastic," said Karissa Niehoff, the executive director of National Federation of State High School Associations who was formerly the CIAC's executive director. "Obviously, she brings semi-pro experience. Her knowledge of the game is superior. She commands respect from experiential perspective."
Garzone played football for a number of years with women's teams, including the Hartford-area Connecticut Crush and the Danbury Wreckers.
Seven years ago, she became an assistant football coach at Wolcott Tech, where she is a social studies teacher and the girls basketball and softball coach. Wolcott Tech football merged with the other two schools four years ago.
"For the most part, it's been a smooth transition," Garzone said at practice Thursday at Housatonic Regional. "I think having played and doing it for as long as I have, that question (of having a woman as a coach) isn't there in the forefront of most of (the players') minds."
She had always liked playing football and thought about it in high school, at Sacred Heart High in Waterbury, but it was a backup plan in case she didn't make the soccer team. Then she made the soccer team. She played soccer, basketball and softball in high school, then at Post University in Waterbury.
One of her soccer coaches told her about the Crush.
"She called me up and 'Hey, do you want to come play football?' and it was a done deal from there," Garzone said on Thursday. "It was amazing. Just the sport itself, the camaraderie."
She paused, watching the slower MCW players finish their mile run around the track.
"Hey, make sure you put pressure on who's in your group to get them in because some of them are still walking," she yelled. The players who had already finished started running with the others and encouraging them along.
"Coach, what group am I in?" one asked her.
"It's like having 47 children," Garzone said, who has a 4 -month-old girl with her husband Francesco Garzone, a math teacher at Wolcott Tech.
"Although I'm glad I didn't give birth 47 times," she said.
But does it feel like that some days? she was asked.
"Yes," she said. "With no epidural."
The players tower over her. To them, she's "Coach." Or "Stango."
Eric Hickey, a senior wide receiver, said there's no difference having a male or female head coach.
"We always have that mentality that we have to work hard and, hopefully, come away with the win," he said. "I think it's the same."
The team hasn't won since the merger in 2016. Wolcott Tech last won a game in 2014. So most days, she's not thinking about being the first female coach; she's thinking of what she will do to get the team its first win. MCW will host Platt Tech on Sept. 14 at Housatonic's field.
"When you're the first, the eyes are watching, the microscope's on you. It is (pressure)," she said. "I try not to think about it too much and try to focus on the task ahead.
"The only saving grace is that I'm not taking over a state championship program. I'm taking over a team that's still looking for their first win. That makes it a little easier, but the incentive is still there to do well."
Anne MacNeil, Housatonic's athletic director, loves having a female football coach.
"Having another strong female is amazing, and having Jen as the coach _ she's proven herself as a leader. She's compassionate. She's out here for our students _ that was evident since day one," MacNeil said. "It's good for the boys. There has never once been any inclination of disrespect. She's the coach."