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Kacalski earns dream job, passes away before season

The opportunity for Tom Kacalski to coach the boys varsity soccer team at Frontier was his dream job.

A former soccer coach at Lackawanna, Kacalski was given the Frontier job this past spring and had every practice scheduled for the first day on Aug. 18 up until the when the state championship game was scheduled.

Those plans culminated on July 31, when a 43-year-old Kacalski passed away after battling an illness for much of the week.

“There was a lot of excitement that Frontier was finally going to catch up to the Orchard Parks and the Lancasters and Clarences,” said Richard Kozak, who coached soccer with Kacalski and calls him a friend and mentor. “He lived and breathed soccer but at heart he was the consummate teacher. The opportunity to do that at this level made this his ultimate dream job.”

According to Kozak, there are a number of theories for what could have caused the infection that Kacalski died from.

Kacalski did not have a spleen, and he always had issues with that since he was a child. The absence of a spleen creates increased risk of a serious infection, and after a day at Woodlawn Beach forced his wife, Michelle, to rush him to Mercy Hospital on July 30 a few hours after texting Kozak about the upcoming 14-under soccer season.

“I was on vacation and our wives made us promise not to text or email each other regarding any kind of sports, especially soccer, because we would do it 30-50 times a day,” Kozak said about his last phone call with Kacalski. “I was on the beach and I got a text. It was Tom, and he says, ‘I know you’re on vacation but I need to talk to you.’ I go, ‘What is it about?’ and he says ‘Hamburg.’

“So I call him and he says he’s having a heck of a time filling the team out because they’re so good this year, which is his fault because he trained them so much.”

That phone call was about the 14-under boys team the two coached. They made plans to hold a final tryout on Aug. 4, which ironically ended up being the day of Kacalski’s funeral.

With the team too choked up to practice today, Kozak instead held his 7-8 team girls practice. Their first game will take place on Aug. 9 at the Burke Road fields in Lake View at noon, where they are going to wear blue and white and name their team the Falcons, Frontier’s nickname.

Kozak and the girls thought it would be a great way to celebrate Kacalski.

“I figured on a beautiful day like this, this is where Tom and I would’ve been,” Kozak said.

Kacalski grew up in Lackawanna and became a teacher at the high school, where he spent much of his soccer career. He was an assistant to Mark Spacone in 2013, but was the Lackawanna boys coach from 2008-2012, taking over to rebuild a troublesome program that was suspended in 2007.

He helped the boys program win three division titles and two ECIC Sportsmanship Team of the Year awards.

He also coached the girls team at Lackawanna before his stint with the boys.

“There were some bumps in the road at first, but he turned that thing around,” said Kozak. “Those guys were good. The records speak for itself.”

Kacalski is survived by his wife, Michelle, daughters Melissa and Caitlin, and son, Josh. His daughters graduated from Frontier and he was preparing for his son to enter high school and coach him soon on the varsity level.

His family was with him at Mercy the entire time ever since his wife took him on Monday night. By Tuesday he had a 103 degree fever and was unconscious. Kozak and his wife made it home around 3 a.m. Thursday morning and received a call from Kacalski’s son-in-law around 11 a.m. that things weren’t looking so good.

Kacalski passed away about around 11:45 a.m. and Kozak pulled up to the hospital.

“If it happened to anyone else, it might’ve been an upset stomach or a little bit of a headache,” said Kozak. “There’s so many more important things than sports, but with only a couple of weeks left until the season starts, I just hope everybody can figure things out. I feel bad for the kids because they’re going to miss out on a lot. I feel terrible for his family because this fantastic father and grandfather…what a great guy.”
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