Change is in the air around Middletown football

By Kevin Gleason
Special to Section 9 Football Insider

Tim Strenfel gathers his Middletown High football team to the 50-yard line and has a few words for the sweat-drenched group weary from another full day of practice. Strenfel then raises his iPad into the air for a mass viewing of a spin-wheel application that will determine punishment resulting from players late to the afternoon session. The wheel stops.

“Fifty burpees!’’ he announces.

Players strip their shoulder pads and start repping the exhaustive cardio exercise. Then there is this, something promising and unique and maybe a little magical when it involves a Middletown football program that has endured more than a decade of losing.

Nobody is complaining.

Ninety players – 49 on the varsity, 41 on the jayvee – dig into their burpees without a gripe or single finger pointed at the tardy culprits.

Ninety players accepting a punishment.

Ninety players acting like a team.

What’s the big deal? It might not be one to the Newburgh Free Academys or Monroe-Woodburys of the Section 9 football universe, programs thriving for years through quality coaching and players 1 through 90 showing all the symptoms of ADD — accountability, discipline and dedication. But for Middletown, with one winning varsity season (5-4 in 2015) in Strenfel’s 12 years coaching various levels at the school?

It is big.

Real big.

The truth? Strenfel might have been somewhat responsible for most of the team showing up onto the field after the scheduled 1 p.m. start. They had forgotten that Strenfel wasn’t having his daily between-practices life-lesson chat in the locker room, so players were in the room before getting word that practice was starting.

Coach Stren, as he’s known, chuckles lightly at the mixup. In his second season as head coach, Strenfel doesn’t pretend to have all the answers to building the program into a consistent winner. What Strenfel, a former star wideout at Division II East Stroudsburg, does possess is the desire and smarts and caring but firm touch with players. He knew the culture had to change even before another losing season, 3-5 in 2017. Middletown opens the 2018 season at Warwick at 7 p.m. on Friday.

The first challenge was adding numbers. A physical education teacher in the high school, Strenfel has scoured the hallways and his own classes to find potential players. Just try it, he tells them. Maybe it won’t be for you, just give it a shot.

Such recruitment helped bring a whopping 119 jayvee and varsity players to opening day of preseason, the largest turnout in recent memory. By week two the number had been reduced to 90 thanks to personal and personnel decisions, with 49 on the varsity. Still, the numbers and enthusiasm are refreshingly high.

“I remember last year, he said something that stuck with me,’’ senior linebacker Michael Rivera says. “He said, ‘If you run through a wall for me, I will run through that wall for you.’ ‘’

Rivera and senior fellow linebacker Tyshawn Moody, candidates to become team captains, point to Strenfel creating a culture of not only belief and accountability, but arguably the greatest coach-player virtue in all of sports: trust.

Trusting and believing in the coach spill into players trusting and believing in one another. Ask Rivera. Ask Moody. They talk about the effort and confidence of teammates, the – here comes that word again – belief that their dedication will translate to wins.

“You can tell that (coaches) put a lot of effort into this team,’’ Moody says. “You can tell that they really care.’’

They see it in those 15-minute life-lesson chats between practices. One day it involved the importance of a firm handshake while looking the person in the eye. Another day it was on the dangers of being dumb on social media. Another day it involved how to tie a tie.

Strenfel, in turn, is thrilled with players showing their own care by policing each other. Rivera, Moody and others have taken active leadership roles, allowing Strenfel to focus on teaching instead of constantly disciplining.

One of the components exciting players is Strenfel’s move to a two-platoon system, with all but a chosen few kids performing on offense or defense, not both ways. Such specialization has brought several benefits, starting with kids narrowing their focus to one position while increasing energy levels. Players are enjoying more practice reps per position as a result, which improves their technique and overall insight.

Strenfel has been pleasantly surprised at how spectacularly players have embraced the change. They have taken greater ownership of their position without spreading themselves too thin. Rivera and Moody, one of the rare kids who will regularly play both ways (also at fullback), remember the Middies a year ago allowing a blocked punt and safety that might have cost them the Washingtonville game because linemen were sapped.

“They are sick of losing,’’ Strenfel says.

“The team is a family now,’’ Rivera says, clasping his hands together as a visual of the unity. “It’s a feeling that we are all in this together.’’