“We always wanted to get where Highland was,” said now long-time coach (eleven years and counting) Tom Tegeler a few years ago, after the Huguenots had won their second Section 9 title under his guidance. Well, not to be corny, but “mission accomplished.”
The program, after enduring seven straight losing seasons through the late 1980’s and early 1990's, started coming around when the young coach out of Rondout joined the staff of then-coach Kirk Reinhardt and saw the Pop Warner program start to take off. In Tegeler's tenure New Paltz has made the Class B playoffs seven times and won the Section 9 title three times -- including last season, when the Huguenots stopped a rough, tough Marlboro team completely cold, winning 13-0, in what arguably was the best game (at least on the defensive end) that New Paltz EVER played. Last season ended with a 27-0 (it was just 13-0 through three quarters) loss to Croton in a State regional game. But for this season, the biggest loss is in personnel. As in "top-shelf" personnel.
“We lost 26 players from last year,” says Tegeler, “but I think we have the guys to step in and cover those losses.” It won't be easy, as the names roll out of Tegeler's mouth: All-State defensive tackle Kyle Roberts, three-year starting middle linebacker Thomas Covino, back-up quarterback, wide out, running back Jon Diaz, running back/outside linebacker Pete Ferrante, defensive back John Ferrante, defensive end John Schmitt, tight end/defensive end Erik Simonson, center and linebacker Matt Tompkins, quarterback Kyle Januskiewwicz and others. All starters. All big-time players that played at least three years for Tegeler.
“We're still okay at our skill positions, with Khariff (Laboy, who electrified the Section as a freshman running back/defensive back/kick returner, and who scored the Huguenots first touchdown in the Section 9 title game with Marlboro on a 50-yard run), Darryl Clark (the battering ram then-sophomore who teamed with Laboy, Diaz, Pete Ferrante and Covino to give New Paltz one of the best running attacks in the Section), Kaason (Clark, who played a near-flawless outside linebacker and this year moves to fullback, blocking for his brother, Laboy and Darryl) and Chad Wells (who played wide-out -- with some spectacular catches, especially in the playoffs -- and will be this year's Jon Diaz), so it is with the lines that we suffered the biggest losses.”
Luckily, Tegeler has Anthony Tufano, Kyle Nagel and Tom Hull returning, adding support to newcomers Nick Morris, Terrance Patterson, Evan Redman and Will Stamberg. “It won't be easy to put this all together. We're going to have to be fast learners, but we should be good, better at the end of the season than in the beginning.”
A big problem to solve will be at quarterback, where last season's backup backup, senior Ricky Drosdowich, is also penciled in as a wide-out, leaving the major battle between sophomores Nick DiMarco and Lincoln Kelly. “I like bringing in young quarterbacks that can grow with the program, giving them time to develop -- like we did with Jon Diaz (who played four years and started at quarterback as a sophomore) -- but there will be growing pains, they're untested at this level. But all-in-all I think the program is in good shape (34 out for varsity, 44 JV's and 50 at the modified level). We should be in there again at the end (the playoffs), but the league is better than ever and we play two really good Class A teams in Monticello and Saugerties, so we definitely have our work cut out for us.”
New Paltz opens their 2011 football season against Onteora at home on Friday, Sept. 2 at 6:30 p.m.
And when it comes to continuity, there aren't many programs around like Highland's. Starting with long-time coach Carl Relyea -- now some 26 years-or-so -- at the helm, and with an almost unmatched success rate through the decades, the Huskies went from THE powerhouse of Class C (including numerous Section 9 titles and multiple visits to the State regionals and semifinals), to -- after a couple years of adjustment -- numerous trips to the Class B playoffs, a Section title and even in a "down" year like last year, enough talent, desire and just plain old toughness to get back there year after year.
Last season's team was coming off the loss of 28 players, including nearly every starter on both offense and defense, but Relyea still had a strong nucleus of sometime-starters and role-players that stepped up and gave the faithful out at Pancake Hollow a respectable 4-5 record and battled heavily favored Marlboro to a near standstill in a Class B semifinal loss. Alas, most are now graduated, as Highland lost 18 of its 22 starters, including 1000-yard rusher Mike Forte, his backfield mate and linebacker Travis Dutka, strong-armed quarterback and defensive back Dan Chenery, fullback/linebacker Dylan Ose, wideout Nick Ranalli, center Devon Palmatier, defensive end Ben Smith, lineman Nick Iorlano and others.
“We're replacing our entire offense and defense,” says Relyea, “and even at running back, where we've traditionally had studs that could break-off a big run or get us 100 yards a game, this season -- at least as far as I can tell right now -- we won't have that. So even there we'll have running back by committee.”
That running back by committee will be fullback/middle linebacker Brandon Bassaccia, running back/linebacker/defensive back's Steve Rosado, Lucas Canino, Ryan Stafford and Anthony Pavese (all on last season's varsity) and newcomer Ruben Gonzalez (up from JV's). The line returns just senior linemen Greg Sasso, Shane Turner, Connor McCutcheon and Kevin Rivera. Newcomers along the line are freshmen Teddy Mapes, Dominick Bellacicco and Osman Shaheed.
And like with their counterparts at New Paltz, the Huskies are faced with an unknown at quarterback, with last season's backup Jonathan LaFarge, up-from-JV's Chris Ranalli and newcomer Charlie Merget (who is also penciled in at split end).
“We'll be competitive (when are they not?),” says Relyea, “but we're a very young team, a team in transition, a team with a lot of terrific athletes who haven't played at this level, the speed of the varsity game as compared to JV's is formidable. Add a tough schedule and it makes for a ‘Who knows how we'll do this year?’,” adds Relyea.
That may all be true and obvious to Relyea, but one thing is certain, like with their rivals at New Paltz, the program continues. There are "blip" seasons -- of course -- but this has been a winning tradition for three decades now and there doesn't seem to be any reason -- even if just 20 kids come out for varsity (there are more than 40 again this year) -- that it won't continue. Playing against Highland has never been easy for any opponent and this year should just be more of the same.
Highland opens the season at home against Rondout on Friday, Sept. 2 at 7 p.m.