Program News‎ > ‎News Reporting‎ > ‎

They did not play, but they sure can coach These coaches never played the game

posted Oct 5, 2016, 9:28 AM by John Coletta

They did not play, but they sure can coach

These coaches never played the game

By Michael Kelly August 30, 2016
Shenendehowa varsity boy’s volleyball coach John Coletta learned the sport on the fly, first by studying the game, then playing it.
Shenendehowa varsity boy’s volleyball coach John Coletta learned the sport on the fly, first by studying the game, then playing it.
  • email
Text Size: A | A
subscribe to the Daily Gazette

CLIFTON PARK — Fresh out of SUNY Cortland, John Coletta was offered a job teaching physical education at his old high school.

It came with a catch.

He also needed to coach the school’s boys’ junior varsity volleyball team.

“I was scared. I was terrified. Very nervous,” Coletta said, remembering back to his first coaching season with Shenendehowa in 2004. “I knew the kids in the gym would know more about the game than me.”

Coletta had played soccer, basketball and baseball growing up. In college, he ran cross country and competed in track.

Volleyball? He’d played it in youth physical education classes and had taken a course his sophomore year of college that taught the fundamentals of the game.

“But I didn’t leave that class thinking I’d be a volleyball coach,” Coletta said. “It was just something I had to take.”

Like a number of coaches across Section II’s various levels of high school athletics, Coletta got his start in coaching by taking on the job for a team that simply needed a coach. Many — like Coletta, now 34 years old and coming off a 2015 season in which he led the Shenendehowa varsity team to the state final four — have developed from novices to experts, such as Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake girls’ volleyball’s Gary Bynon and Amsterdam boys’ track and field’s Kevin Wilary.

To do so is a long journey. For Coletta, it started in 2004 with a JV team he led to a winless season. The lone set that team won was the last it played.

“That was like winning a championship for us,” Coletta said.

The next season didn’t go much better; Coletta’s team won one match. During those first few years, Coletta read books about volleyball, attended clinics and found online tutorials to study — but progress came in slow gains.

“Compared to now, yeah, I had no idea what was going on,” said Coletta, who is now in his sixth season as the Plainsmen varsity team’s head coach. “But I cared. I really cared. Going home, I remember sharing with my wife [Colleen] the frustration of what I was going through with trying to get my kids better. There were a lot of hard seasons, personally, because I really wanted the kids to be successful.”

Amsterdam’s Wilary finds that last part especially relatable. Baseball and football were the sports of his youth, but he showed up anyway at the school’s track as a volunteer timer during his first year teaching as a favor to coach Stu Palczak. Soon he was attending practices. Then he was an assistant coach. Next, he took over the boys’ program and focused most of his efforts on teaching the school’s sprinters.

That role quickly became a more important one than normal. In Wilary’s second season as head coach, sprinter Izaiah Brown — now a sophomore at Rutgers University who is coming off a freshman season in which he won the 400-meter dash at both the Big Ten indoor and outdoor championship meets — showed up, pushing Wilary to spend even more time learning the finer points of sprint training.

“I didn’t want to screw him up,” Wilary said of Brown, who won multiple state championships in high school. “Having him, there was pressure. There were such high expectations for him every year and one thing I wanted to make sure he did was get better every year so he could get to where he is today.”

By his third year of coaching volleyball, Coletta started to make significant progress. He’d started playing the game on a men’s team, and his teammates there taught him how to use his 6-foot-4 frame on the court.

“That really made a difference for me,” Coletta said. “They’d kind of coach me as we played.”

Coletta gained enough comfort during the next few years with the sport he quickly grew to love to accept the varsity coaching position prior to the 2011 season. By his fourth season at the varsity level, he’d developed a high-level command of the sport, able to break down the game’s complicated nuances in a direct fashion and with complete confidence.

It took Burnt Hills’ Bynon about a decade to get to that point, too. Despite all the winning his program has done since he took control of it in 1988, Bynon said it wasn’t until the 1997 season that he fully shed the final remnants of being a “basketball, football guy” in his youth.

“That’s when I really started to feel comfortable with our system, how to train our kids,” he said. “That took our program to another level.”

Bynon’s now the president of the New York Volleyball Coaches Association, and his program has won six state titles. What keeps him motivated, though, is the memory of when he felt inferior to some of his coaching peers.

“One of the reasons for the success of people who coach a sport they didn’t play is that they . . . go out there and feel like they have to prove themselves to other coaches that played the game,” said Bynon, whose program carries a 377-match league winning streak into Suburban Council play this year. “I don’t ever want to not be prepared because of [my past inexperience]. I still to this day think that way.”

At times, too, those early days of inexperience pay dividends for a coach. During Shenendehowa’s run to the state tournament last season, the Plainsmen’s toughest match came during the sectional semifinals against Niskayuna when they dropped the first two sets.

“Everyone was all tight. Frantic,” said Ross Halpern, Coletta’s assistant and former player during those JV years. “But you looked over at John, and he’s sitting there, smiling, saying we’re going to be OK. . . . He kept everyone cool, relaxed and focused.”

Shenendehowa won the next three sets to advance to the area title game. Coletta’s demeanor throughout that semifinal stayed calm, as is his custom. Even when a bad call goes against his team, Coletta keeps his cool. He developed that even-keeled approach back when he was starting out as a coach, and knew his knowledge of the game needed improvement before he’d ever take on an official

“The whistles would blow sometimes and I’d be like, ‘What’s happening?’” he remembered, laughing.

Now, he knows, but wants to know more. Volleyball has become Coletta’s game, and he’s as much a teacher of it as he is a student.

“But that’s one of the neat parts about volleyball: trying to be a student of the game and understanding there’s more than one way to do things,” he said. “So I’ll always be open to learning new things with it.”