It’s never easy for any high school athletic program to defend a state title.
The Chagrin Falls Tigers’ girls’ soccer team’s quest to repeat as Division II state champions will be even more challenging because longtime head coach Pamela Malone has officially retired.
The former girls’ soccer coach is leaving the program in the hands of Joe Ciuni, Jr., her right-hand man from the 2021 season.
“Her word goes a long way around here and it’s a word that a lot of people respect and listen to,” he said. “A lot of people know me and what I’m capable of and who I am as a person and am capable and ready to lead this program.
Ciuni is no stranger as he spent two years serving as the junior varsity coach and was soon tapped as the heir apparent to succeed Malone when he was appointed as the co-coach during the 2021 season.
The new Lady Tigers’ coach’s experience with soccer can be traced back to when he was a child.
His father, Joe Ciuni, Sr., played soccer at the University of Notre Dame and passed on the sport to Ciuni and his two brothers.
“He was our first coach,” explained Ciuni, “He coached a lot of our teams growing up and taught us a lot about the game. Soccer has been an important part of my family for as long as I can remember since I was about 3.”
Ciuni, 30, said his passion for the game of soccer stemmed from the fact it was a continuous sport that stressed constant movement. He didn’t enjoy sports that required a lot of timeouts. He liked activities that required him to always keep his feet moving.
Born in University Heights, Ciuni played varsity soccer at his father’s alma matter, Gilmour Academy.
He was a four-year starter for the Lancers but none of those Gilmour teams ever advanced past the district finals.
He split time at several positions in his freshman season but became the full-time starting center midfielder in his sophomore campaign.
“I viewed that as the quarterback of the team,” he said. “You want the ball at the center midfielder’s feet and they kind of direct the offense there by setting up people to score but then they’re also a big important part of the defensive side of the ball in shutting down the middle of the field.”
Following his graduation, Ciuni walked on to play at Fairfield University in Connecticut.
He competed for two seasons before he officially ended his playing career.
According to Ciuni, injuries had taken their toll on him and he was no longer as quick or as agile as he used to be and knew he could not keep up with the level of play.
In addition, he also transferred to John Carroll University.
“I felt a little out of place on the east coast,” he admitted. “It didn’t fit my personality as much being out there as the Midwest does so once I knew soccer was going to be out of the picture, I knew there wasn’t too much of a reason to stay there. I already had friends who went to John Carroll so I already knew people and I’d fit right in.”
As soon as Ciuni returned home, his father invited him to serve as an assistant coach for the Gesu Catholic School for both the girls’ and boys’ soccer teams.
“Being in the middle of a playing career it’s not something I had thought of before and I had never said when I was younger that I wanted to coach one day,” said Ciuni. “He asked me to help out and I thought ok I’ll help my Dad out and help the school I went to but I loved it right from day one.”
Ciuni added while he enjoyed his new role as a coach, he still had a lot to learn because he struggled to channel his competitive fire from when he was a player into a productive form of coaching.
He said his intensity originally prevented him from relating with his players and helping them grow. He was too focused on the immediate results instead of the journey it required to get there.
Ciuni’s first few years of coaching inspired him to switch his major from finance to education because he enjoyed working with children.
“I knew if I became a teacher I’d have a lot of time to coach as well and I knew if I went into a different world I knew I wouldn’t have that time and I probably wouldn’t be doing this right now,” he said.
Ciuni continued coaching at Gesu until he returned to his old stomping grounds when Gilmour reached out to his father to coach the girls’ soccer program in 2009, after the previous head coach suddenly retired during the preseason.
Ciuni continued working as an assistant coach for his father for eight seasons before the elder Ciuni transitioned to become the boys’ head coach prior to the 2016 campaign and Ciuni was elevated to become the new girls’ head coach, and the Ciuni family was piloting both Gilmour soccer programs.
In eight seasons as an assistant coach, the Lady Lancers only appeared in one district final.
Ciuni’s first year as the head coach saw him take the program to new heights and pioneered the Gilmour girls to their first state title in school history by going 22-1, with their only loss coming against Malone’s Lady Tigers.
“The 2016 team was willing to sacrifice for each other,” Ciuni said. “That year was special and it’s hard for high school athletes to do that and not think about themselves as individuals. All of them were thinking about the team.”
Ciuni coached Gilmour for two more seasons before he stepped down following the conclusion of the 2018 campaign.
According to him, he needed a little break from soccer.
“I had gotten to a point where soccer had been such a huge part of my life it was almost my entire life,” he explained. “I was coaching club soccer at the time and basically coaching year round and basically every weekend, week nights practices and things like that.”
His retirement was short-lived when he saw an opening on Malone’s staff at Chagrin Falls.
He said he could not pass up the opportunity to coach for one of the most revered high school soccer coaches in the area.
“I had always been familiar with Chagrin Falls and their players just by coaching against Coach Malone and we had a lot of respect for each other, and had a lot of good games against each other but I also had a lot of respect for the Chagrin Falls’ players,” explained Ciuni.
He started out as the junior varsity coach and said it was a perfect fit bit because junior varsity required a lot less traveling and it wasn’t as results-driven as varsity soccer was.
After his first year, Ciuni said he and Malone chatted and she believed him to be the perfect person to pass on the torch.
Ciuni then became the co-coach for the 2021 season and shared all of the coaching responsibilities with Malone.
“We were running practices and designing them and game-day decisions and things like that,” he said. “For Coach Malone we had a lot of decisions in how we wanted the game to be played. It was never really our decisions that were going against each other. We always had the same thing in mind and it really worked well and was a really good partnership so it was a shared responsibility.”
The results spoke for themselves as the Lady Tigers snagged their first state banner since the 1996 campaign.
In only four years as a head coach, Ciuni is now two-for-two in state title games.
The target is now on the Lady Tigers’ backs for the upcoming season but he is ready to do his part.
“We become the biggest game for most of teams on our schedule and they’re going to want to really knock us off and we’re going to be getting everybody’s best every single game,” he noted.