Kohler’s impact at Tenafly now 400 wins deep by J.C. Baumuller special to northjerseysports.com
TENAFLY – Tenafly’s Jeff Koehler earned victory No. 400 with a 2-0 (25-12, 25-10) win over Cresskill last Monday, another achievement in the triumphant career of this beloved volleyball coach. The team knew that this match was Koehler’s first opportunity for this significant accomplishment and they had been looking forward to this day all season long. To get the victory they knew all they had to do was play their game.
“At the start of the season there was an article published and it said he needed 16 wins,” said senior Kelsey Koehler, a superb defensive specialist and daughter of the coach. “So throughout the season we were counting down really trying to get the 16 wins for him. I texted the team last night to let everyone know this is happening. We played the same way we’ve been playing because we’ve been playing really well. If we could play the way we’ve been playing we could win this game and it would be an amazing experience for everyone, especially my dad.”
The match itself was a bit one-sided. Cresskill took a 1-0 lead in the first set but a kill by Tigers senior middle hitter Angelina Tapia and an attack error by the Cougars gave Tenafly a 2-1 lead. The Tigers never trailed again and with Tapia and junior outside hitter Zuzanna Buchnajzer combining for 20 kills in the match Koehler reached the milestone.
Cresskill coach Catherine Durakis, though disappointed with the loss, has known Koehler for a long time and was happy for him.
“I couldn’t be more excited for him. He puts his heart and soul into his program. To get his 400th is a big deal,” she said. “Not only have I coached against him, I played for him when I was in high school at his camps. I’ve known him since I was in ninth grade. You wanted to play for him because of his energy, his positivity. He cares so much about what you do. I remember being on the court and I wanted to play for coach Koehler and impress him. It’s the same way I felt about [former Cresskill coach] John Von Glahn. They’re both very passionate and very good about what they do. I’ve learned a lot from both of them. If I’m ever stuck in a situation I’ll try to pick their brains to see what they would do.”
Koehler was hired by former athletics director Ed Craumer, who said he was motivated to hire Koehler because of his passion.
“He always seemed very passionate about whatever it was that he was going to attack,” Craumer said. “He had no experience in coaching volleyball, but as you can see he’s had nothing but success the whole way. He did a wonderful job in girls basketball. And he was also very fair. He was one of the few people, who as a young coach, was able to work his way through that tangled web – keep the kids happy, keep the parents happy and keep his staff focused. That’s another thing that impressed me.”
“It was in 1998 and Ed told me there was a volleyball opening, and I told him I was a football guy,” Koehler said with a laugh.
At the time Koehler was coaching at Dwight-Englewood and when Craumer contacted the school they gave him rave reviews about Koehler.
“There were a couple of people from the athletic staff at Dwight-Englewood who spoke volumes about how he had coaching in his blood,” Craumer said. “Even at age 28 he had coaching in his blood. And now 23 years later he’s been the head coach of four different varsity programs at Tenafly and each one has taken on his characteristics and have been nothing but successful.
“He’s a winner and he’s a nice guy. Everybody likes to be around him. I was very fortunate to have crossed paths with him and brought him here to Tenafly. Everybody has benefitted from his time here and he’s not finished.”
Koehler says that after he got the volleyball coaching job he went to see matches played by NV/Demarest, NV/Old Tappan and River Dell.
“On my off days I went to watch the coaches (Beth Powell, Melissa Landeck, Dianne Furusawa),” he said. “I would videotape them and their bench to see how they do things. Our warmup is a combination of NV/Demarest, NV/Old Tappan and River Dell. I copycat what they did.”
Koehler said his first squad was a .500 team and in 1999 they improved to 17-4. But in 2000 the team fell back, finishing 1-17.
“That year we went with freshmen and sophomores from the middle of the season on,” he said.
Since then his teams have been .500 or better every year.
“Coaching is finding a way to get a group to do something extraordinary,” he said. “In order to win it’s all about the role players. Everybody wants to score 20 points or get 20 kills. But understanding your role is the key to high school sports.”
This season the Lady Tigers have beaten both River Dell and Demarest, a feat not accomplished by many teams.
“A lot of girls [through the years] told me that you can’t beat Demarest and River Dell,” Koehler said. “But Kelsey always said we would and then we finally did with her on the team.”
Kelsey Koehler is in a unique position on the team, being both a team member and daughter of the head coach.
“I actually just wrote an essay about this in English class,” she said, smiling. “It’s a lot harder – you always have to be the best; you can’t be average. You have to be better than everyone else and prove you know the game. I know the ins and outs. Every car ride home he talks to me about volleyball IQ or softball IQ and I feel like it gives me an extra edge. It’s definitely harder but I appreciate it.”
Kelsey is also a member of her dad’s softball team, another sport coach Koehler picked up two years ago. She said the Koehler household is all sports all the time.
“It’s always coach and daughter,” she said with a laugh. “He’s always talking sports no matter what the sport, even watching football. He tries to tell me the ins and outs of the Jets game. He’s always going to be my coach everywhere.”
The Jets picked up their first victory of the season recently with a big win over the Dallas Cowboys. Naturally father and daughter were watching the game together.
“We were so excited,” said Kelsey. “I was wearing my Jets jersey and I took it off for whatever reason and he yelled at me because the [Cowboys] scored. I put it back on and thank God we won because he would have killed me. That game was crazy.”
Koehler began coaching boys basketball a few years ago after a great run with the girls basketball program. The highlight might have been their run in the 2003 Bergen County Girls Basketball Tournament, where they defeated the previously unbeaten Pascack Valley team that featured Heather Zurich and Kristin Brown. Park Ridge’s athletics director, Chris Brown, was Koehler’s assistant coach for a few years, including that magical 2002-03 season.
“Jeff’s the best,” he said. “To quote Mickey Corcoran, ‘he gets it.’ From the perspective of the kid, being a parent, coaching, he is knowledgeable and it’s hard to even compare him to anyone else. It’s the relationship he develops with the kids when they’re here and what he gets out of them.
“To be at a school for as long as he has and coach all the sports he has is an amazing thing. It’s a tribute to him and Tenafly is lucky to have him.”
Koehler is very specific about what he looks for in a player.
“Number one,” he said, “look at the parents and you’ll see everything you want to know. Is the kid selfish, a me kid? Or is he or she team-oriented and committed? A few years ago we had Jackie Clifford. Her parents never talked about her and she was unselfish, always putting the team first. She did what was best for the team. I can count on one hand the number of parents I’ve had who didn’t get it.”
Brown laughs when he talks about the preseason phone calls he has with Koehler.
“Every year he always jokes, ‘we’re gonna stink, we’re not very good,’ and then he wins 20 games and he’s in the state semis or state finals,” he said. “He loves it so much, he puts time into it and he cares, he cares so much. As an athletic administrator you see that and you hope all of your coaches can be like that.
“He’s also a great mentor to his assistant coaches. He takes the time to make sure his middle school and sub-varsity coaches kind of get it as well.”
For years Koehler has given credit to his assistant coaches for helping him get through the season. Junior varsity coach Allison Bruttomesso has been with him for four or five years, while freshman coach Megan Williams has been by his side for 17 or 18 years. Williams and Koehler’s wife, Holly, planned the postgame ceremony celebrating win No. 400.
“There is not a better coach who understands and reads me,” he said about Williams. “She tells me what we need to do.”
Based on his experience working with him Brown also has a good read on Koehler.
“Jeff is like a little kid sometimes,” said Brown. “Everything he does he goes into with excitement, and energy and enthusiasm. Only when the season officially ends does he really show how disappointed or upset he is that it’s over. Because he puts everything into it he’s usually exhausted by the end of the season because he’s given everything he can. One of the favorite things he says is, ‘don’t leave anything on the floor, no matter what you do. No regrets. Don’t regret that you didn’t give your best effort.’ We always carried that through and I say that to our kids [in Park Ridge].”
“We’re so excited for him,” Kelsey said on behalf of the team. “I remember when he got his 300th win a few years back. I was counting down, doing the math, to see if it was possible that I could be on his team when he got his 400th. It is a special experience for him and he’s so happy. I’m glad I could be there as a senior to be able to experience that with him. I think it’s incredible what he has done.”