A lot of very good football players have come and gone at New Paltz High School in the past 20 years. Some of the very best truly stand out. One thinks of Travis O’Dell, James Mach, Brandon Egan-Thorpe, Gordie Pine, Kevin Murphy, Joe Judge, Alex Dumas, Khariff Laboy, Guy Soumah, Joey DiMarco, Jon Diaz, Jimmy Verney, and this year Kenny Verney, Tanner Johnson and Mike Pisciotta, Over those years the Huguenots have won Section 9 titles in 2002, 2007, 2010 and 2016. They’ve also played in the Section championship game in 2003, 2008, 2017 and 2018. New Paltz enjoys a never-before elite status in the Section.
Though players come and go in high-school ball, one important feature of New Paltz football has stayed constant. Head coach Tom Tegeler, who has been running the show since the 2000 season, is arguably the best coach in the Section. Tegeler, a three-sport superstar at Rondout in the early 1990s (baseball was his best sport), attended Division 1 St. Bonaventure, where he became a hall-of-famer in baseball.
Tegeler played for the Albany River Dogs in the minor leagues for a season or two before signing on to teach at New Paltz High School, heeding a call from long-ago athletic director John Ford. “Can you help fix this?” asked Ford about the failing football program that he himself had once coached. Tegeler decided to give it a go, signing on as an assistant for new coach Kirk Reinhardt.
“That was 1997, and we put together a really good [coaching] team with Kirk, Billy Defino, Tom Fay and myself,” said Tegeler. The Huguenots had not had a winning season since the late 1980s, and at one point had lost 21 straight games.
“I was 25 years old,” said Tegeler, “and full of ideas of how to make the program better. We worked closely together and made the playoffs three straight years.” Then Reinhart took over at Kingston and Toni Woody offered him the head coaching job. New Paltz had a really talented team, “but Rondout and Red Hook were loaded and only two teams made the playoffs those years, so we missed out.” But that first year, 2000, set the program up for the future.
The Huguenots compiled a 101-71 record in the next 18 years, with but two losing seasons.
How did Tegeler do it? “Good assistant coaches,” he said, listing (over the years) Defino, Sam Phelps, Scott Ricketson, Joe Davis, David Dones, Frank Ciliberto, Mike Bonagura, Lou Quick, Jim Malak and even opposing coaches like Highland’s Carl Relyea and Marlboro’s Rich Ward. “I think I’m a good listener.”
How does one build a team when the players change every year? “My thinking was to build it like a marathon race with teaching, the right way to not only play, but the right way to be as a person, a sense of professionalism about one’s role on the field and in life; motivation, which is to respect each other and realize that you’re in this together; and have high expectations, not only for me but for each guy,” Tegeler responded.
He never goes into a season thinking the team is going to be undefeated. He’s not a big believer in that idea.
“I always tell them, You’re never as good as you are on your best day or as bad as you are on your worst, and they listen, they hear that, and I never waver in that idea,” he said. “Look, everyone is different and it took me a few years to understand that, they’re not just football players to me.”
All-State linebacker Kenny Verney, who played for Tegeler for four years, agreed with Tegeler’s notion that “it’s more than just football.” “Yeah,” said Verney, “there’s no one else like him, his pre-game speeches are like no other. He does everything for all of us, treats us like family, checks on every one of us to see how we’re doing. The guys would run through a wall for him, happily. He’s made it all bigger than just football. For me he’s like a second dad.”
“You know I don’t like to lose,” explained Tegeler with a smile, “but I realized awhile ago that it is more about teaching than playing the game. Early on I changed from a fear-based style that did bear some results, to a more understanding one that included the players’ feelings and what was going on in their lives that made them want to be there and compete. Sure, I can get mad at something, but usually it’s more about them not focusing, that they can do better. Character counts here. Academics count here. I feel like I’m having a say in shaping young men. I like that about coaching.”
This past season New Paltz started out 0-3 before rallying to make the Section 9 playoffs once again (losing in the Class A final to eventual state champion Cornwall). Usually extremely animated and opinionated (to the refs) along the sidelines, Tegeler was quiet and calm during the early going. “They needed that from me,” he explained. “If they’re going to put it all out there every day in practice and then on the field Friday nights, they needed me to be on their side, not harangue them for missing a tackle or missing a block.”
Respect breeds respect, Tegeler believes. Consistency breeds consistency.
“It’s that professionalism that my dad taught me,” he said. “And if that’s what I teach them then, regardless of my won-lost record, I did this okay.”