The New Paltz High School varsity football team is gearing up to start their first season in two years, its 2020 campaign lost to the COVID-19 pandemic. When they host Highland to open the 2021 season on Friday, September 10, they’ll do so under new head coach Brandon Egan-Thorpe.
Egan-Thorpe, a 2009 New Paltz High alum, was a standout running back under his coaching predecessor Tom Tegeler, who retired over the summer after over two decades at the helm.
“This is my alma mater and I take pride in how well this football team does,” said Egan-Thorpe ahead of a practice on Saturday morning. “I want to build a program basically from the ground floor up. Coming from here, I definitely take a little bit more pride and I talk to my guys all the time and I tell them, ‘I’ve been here before. I know exactly how you feel.’ I’ve been in their shoes. I’ve been in that helmet before.”
One week into practice and a few weeks into his new gig and despite having largely seen them only wearing face coverings, Egan-Thorpe knows all his players names. They’re all new to their coach, and in some cases they’re new to one another, a mix of varsity veterans and former JV players, some of whom are freshman who haven’t played a snap since they were in the seventh grade.
The first few days of a three-week training camp were a mix of icebreaking and learning Egan-Thorpe’s approach to the game after more than 20 mostly successful years under Tegeler. With the two-year layoff, Egan-Thorpe had to get to know the strengths of his roster as they shook off the rust.
“I think the biggest thing was just kind of getting to know the guys,” said Egan-Thorpe. “I had only been hired probably two or three weeks before the season. It was just me really getting to know all my guys. And I think really that was the biggest challenge. I came in totally fresh. The kids didn’t know me, I didn’t know them. So I think just building that relationship with them was kind of the first thing that I wanted to do. And it was probably an obstacle, but by the end of this week right now, everything’s rolling.”
That familiarity will be important for a team that despite not having played since the end of the 2019 season, arrives with high expectations. The seniors and juniors from that team are gone, but what they managed during the last pre-pandemic season looms large. The Huguenots went 4-5 overall, but 3-1 in Section 9, Class A, making the semifinals before losing for the second time of the season to perennial juggernaut Cornwall in a 40-26 result on Friday, November 11, 2019.
Turnover is par for the course in high school sports, but with two classes graduating since that game the Huguenots are a very different team in 2021. New coach, mostly new roster and a new class as well, having been assigned a Class B slate with a new set of regular rivals on their schedule.
Egan-Thorpe is a firm believer in focusing on the present rather than the future, but he did glance briefly at the Huguenots’ season opener against local non-league Class C opponent Highland, who did play an abbreviated schedule in the Fall 2 season this past spring; they lost all three of their games by a combined score of 138-6.
“These past couple of years New Paltz has played (Class) A, so we haven’t even really played Highand, and they are right next door to us,” said Egan-Thorpe. “I don’t necessarily know if we consider them a rival and to be honest, I’m not even trying to think to two weeks out yet. I’m just trying to take it day-by-day right now, not even trying to think to the future.”
The past then, and Egan-Thorpe’s coaching pedigree prior to his return home. He made his debut at Ichabod Crane Central High School in Valatie, a small town around 65 miles north of New Paltz High. And unlike the Huguenots, Egan-Thorpe did take the field during the Fall 2 season, coaching Unatego High in its sole game, a 50-30 win over Unadilla Valley on Saturday, March 27.
New Paltz High School has an eight-game regular season scheduled, alternating between home and away through Saturday, October 30 when they visit Red Hook. But with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, coaches and athletes alike are acutely aware of how tenuous the season could be. Egan-Thorpe’s time in Unatego was marked by a missed game due to COVID, and even with protocols for this season like masks and face shields on the field, anything is possible.
“Unfortunately, that’s just the times that we’re in right now,” said Egan-Thorpe. “We’re going to be dealing with adversity this year, whether it be with COVID or anything else. But we have to be able to deal with adversity and it’s only gonna make us a better football team. I think the biggest thing is just safety for our kids to make sure that they’re safe and hopefully they can continue to play football. But I have to just remind them sometimes let’s take it day-by-day and we’ll deal with the adversity as it comes.”
So far, Egan-Thorpe likes what he sees of the Huguenots.
“I think we have a lot of talent with a lot of these kids on the team,” he said. “I would definitely say that’s a strength, just the overall talent on the team. But some things that we’re still working on right now is I’m installing a whole new offense. And when you install a whole new offense and you install a new defense, it takes time. Right now we’re just getting reps and we’re learning schemes, we’re learning new plays.”
One of the players Egan-Thorpe said he’ll be relying on to carry the new offense is senior running back Brady Saunders. “He’s a solid kid,” Egan-Thorpe said. “He’s a great athlete and he’s a great person as well.”
Leading the offense will be junior quarterback Tony Drewnowski. “He’s got a good arm,” said Egan-Thorpe. “He’s a good athlete and he’s a really, really smart kid.”
Senior wide receiver and cornerback Zach Halstead (“Quick guy,” said Egan-Thorpe) and junior left tackle Roy Wilms were also cited as key players to look out for in 2021.
In addition to their season opener against Highland, the Huguenots will host Rondout Valley on Friday, September 24; Liberty on Friday, October 8; and Port Jervis on Friday, October 30. The playoffs are scheduled to begin on Friday, November 5.