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Sempier still gets a kick out of coaching
It’s a picture-perfect dry and comfortable Saturday afternoon in mid-August. The Toyota Corolla – which has logged more than 160,000 miles while its driver traverses the Garden State in a never-ending quest to train kicking prospects – pulls up to the curb alongside Bonnel Field in West Caldwell.
As Verona native Pat Sempier exits the driver’s side door and heads to the car’s trunk in order to grab a bagful of footballs before heading out to the field, the single, unmistakable aspect one notices is not the missing hubcap on the front left tire.
Much more striking is the smile on the face of the man, 76 years young, and as excited about beginning year 52 as the state’s top kicking coach as he was when he coached early success stories like Bruce Nugent at Cedar Grove in 1963. Read more about that later on.
Among his pupils in 2010 are a wide-ranging array of veteran kickers, such as Kevin Condal of Hasbrouck Heights (who, Sempier reminds us, is also the Bergen County outdoor track champion in the 400 meters), and younger guys looking to make their mark on the North Jersey scene, such as sophomores Young Hoe Kim of Ridgewood and John Gallagher of Caldwell. On this particular Saturday, Gallagher is simply trying to soak up all he can while working diligently with the veteran kicking coach.
On a local note, the Chiefs’ kicking prospect’s parents, Hugh and Cindy Gallagher, are both Cedar Grove High School graduates, and other family members continue to reside in town dating back to 1951.
“Head down, drive up!,” Sempier says to Gallagher as the youngster displays his potential with a potent drive of the ball through the uprights from 40 yards out.
Then, he asks, “Are you tired yet?”
As the sophomore and the senior citizen both smile, it’s clear that neither is the least bit fatigued. In fact, they’re ready to combine to kick a half dozen more footballs, the elder statesman of Jersey kicking coaches acting as holder and the youngster continuing to work on perfecting his shortened approach to the ball.
“When I was a kicker at Penn, Bobby Walston of the Philadelphia Eagles used to help me out, telling me to keep my head down, use my leg speed through the ball and just keep practicing what I’m supposed to do,” recalls Sempier. “I figured if I did that, then I could just live with the results because a lot of times you learn more from your misses.
“It’s all mental and you just have to keep your focus out there as much as possible.”
The coach is wearing an Indian Hills T-shirt on this afternoon, a reminder of his former pupil, Kevin Heinowitz, who starred at the Oakland-based high school and is now a sophomore kicker at Fordham University.
His many kicking students come to mind at different times during conversation. The list of pupils simply continues to grow, across generations, and Sempier is as busy as ever just five years removed from a quadruple bypass heart operation.
“I was trotting up the stands in Rutgers Stadium with (Knights’ punter) Joe Radigan and I said, ‘Wow! I’m really out of breath.’ From there I ended up in Hackensack Medical Center and had the quadruple bypass.”
All of which makes today as special as ever for the former Verona Hillbilly standout.
“This is fun,” said Sempier, a retired English teacher of 40 years, including 32 at North Bergen. “I feel like I’m 20 years old again.
“Watching these kids reach their potential and then move on to great things in college and beyond is just an incredible feeling and makes it all worthwhile.
“They are like family to me. We remain in contact through the years and, as they get older, they are like my other sons and grandsons.”
And, Sempier is happy to be back working at Caldwell on occasion, where he tutored former Chiefs such as Silvio Bonvini, who went on to a fine career at the University of Massachusetts in the 1980s, along with Ed Dean and Scott Louchs, two other former Caldwell standouts during the coaching tenure of Andy Durborow. Durborow was the field boss for current Chiefs head man Ken Trimmer when the latter was an assistant coach.
Sempier has seen many of his kickers go far in their craft, including Red Bank Regional High School graduate Greg Montgomery, an All-Pro punter during his NFL career with the Houston Oilers, and Brad Costello of Holy Cross of Delran, who went on to have a brief stint with the Cincinnati Bengals. They were two of the Sempier-coached punters who made the pros.
“I’ve worked with place-kickers, punters, holders and long snappers,” said Sempier. “The process of kicking involves a number of people all doing their jobs correctly and with proficiency.”
And, the kicking guru is just as proud of those who have gone into business or far-ranging careers off the field, as he is of his pros like Montgomery.
One of those young men he is particularly fond of, and speaks to on a regular basis, is Vinnie Dolfont, a former scholastic standout at St. Mary’s of Rutherford and an All-New Jersey Athletic Conference kicker at Montclair State. Dolfont is now a U.S. Marine stationed in Afghanistan after completing a tour in Iraq.
“I’m so proud of Vinnie, who is serving his country in the Middle East, and he’s one of the more special, young men I’ve been fortunate enough to know through the years,” Sempier said. “What Vinnie and his fellow soldiers face every day in Afghanistan is real pressure. What I do, and what I hope my students do, is enjoy kicking and enjoy being part of a high school football team.”
While he continues to work with the young men of Hasbrouck Heights, Ridgewood and Caldwell, he also has spent his fair share of time with the big parochial gridiron titans.
Sempier coached several kickers at New Jersey No. 1 Don Bosco Prep, which is also nationally ranked again this season, including all-time Ironmen greats such as Brian Hanley, a senior at Hofstra, and Joe Marcioux, a former Villanova star. Sempier maintains a close relationship with Bergen Catholic and looks to continue to work with the Crusader kickers under first-year head man Nunzio Campanile.
Whether it’s the elite parochials or the small publics, just seeing young men progress in the craft of booting a football downfield or through the uprights excites the traveling kicking coach, who also relishes seeing the young men progress through whatever they choose in life.
In April 2009, more than 200 people, including many former players, came to the Sparta home of Sempier’s daughter and son-in-law, Karen and John Merklinger, to honor the kicking guru on his 50th anniversary as a kicking coach and on his 75th birthday.
“My greatest joy is simply seeing these young guys continue to work hard and have success not only in kicking, but in whatever they decide to do in their lives after football,” said the former Verona High running back and kicker under the late, great Hillbilly coach Dutch Wermuth. “Getting out there every day keeps me going and I want to continue to coach kickers for as long as I possibly can.”
Among the past Essex County products he has worked with include former Seton Hall Prep running back and kicker Greg Amsler (Tennessee), ex-Livingston star Alex Lochman (Johns Hopkins) and current Stony Brook University sophomore kicker and punter Drew Evangelista of Cedar Grove.
“I’m very proud of the work Drew has put in to be a great kicker,” said Sempier. “You have to remember he never came off the field for (coach) Eddie Sadloch, and he’s a great example of the type of special athlete who can contribute in a lot of different ways on the field for his team and also be an outstanding kicker at the same time. I look forward to seeing his continued progress at Stony Brook.”
Speaking of Cedar Grove, one of Sempier’s pupils early in his coaching career was the Panthers’ Bruce Nugent.
“It was 1963 and Bruce kicked four field goals in a season, which tied a state record that had stood for 35 years,” recalled Sempier. “That season spurred on the interest in teams looking to kick field goals, and it was an important point in inspiring more people to take placekicking more seriously as a very important part of the game.”
The many kickers coached by Sempier include the state’s first female to start for her New Jersey high school team, Long Branch’s Leanne Bollinger, who played collegiate soccer at Radford University; ex-Long Branch and Penn State star V.J. Muscillo; Bishop Ahr and Villanova standout Tom Withka, who still holds the state, single-season record of 14 field goals in a season; Manasquan and Delaware State product Everett Morgan, who kicked a then-state record 55-yard field goal, and former Cresskill and University of Miami standout Jeff Kurtz.
Then, there are the more recent success stories who keep on progressing along with Evangelista and Indian Hills’ Heinowitz – who had six field goals in 2008, and is now the sophomore starting placekicker at Fordham. There’s also ex-Roxbury star kicker and punter Jeff Wathne, who became a collegiate star at Temple both as a punter and kickoff artist. Then there’s Bill Prendeville of Chatham, who kicked for Seton Hall Prep before heading to Bucknell University, Casey Hannon, who starred scholastically at Pingry before going on to kick for Villanova, and former Cresskill standout Matt Henry (New Hampshire).
Ross Krautman of Ramapo, another top Sempier student, is competing for the starting kicker’s job at Syracuse.
Krautman and Heinowitz are the first kickers in 56 years to kick off the ground in high school (without a tee).
“They’re so good and kicking off the ground has helped them in impressing the college recruiters,” said Sempier. “Ross is going to be a great one and Kevin is doing well at Fordham.
“Seeing the young guys keep improving makes me smile every day. And I can’t wait to get up each morning and get out there on the road once again.”
Sempier also worked for years with Ross’s older brother, former all-stater Ricky, who also once starred at Ramapo.
While continuing to work with all of his high school kickers this fall, Sempier will still be present on the Seton Hall Prep sidelines as often as possible, working with the Pirates’ junior kicker Mike Borelli, while also watching his grandson, junior running back Rory Merklinger, play for coach John Finnegan’s crew.
Another grandson, Rory’s big brother, John, is a former Pirate who is in the backfield at Muhlenberg College.
Last year’s Seton Hall kicker, Sebastian Aguirre, shined in his only season of high school football under Sempier’s tutelage, after he spent his junior season as the back-up goalkeeper on the school’s soccer team. In 2009, Aguirre was nearly perfect in his extra point placements, converting 36 of 37. Now, he’s a freshman placekicker at Wesleyan University.
“Sebastian had a great year kicking at the Prep, one of the best seasons I’ve seen for one of my kids,” said Sempier. “And, he is still relatively new to football which makes me think he’ll do some great things at Wesleyan.”
Pat is proud of all his kids, whether they are from his wide-ranging family of kickers, or from his own family in New Jersey. His son John lives in North Wildwood, while one of his two daughters, Patty Russo, lives in Caldwell. His other daughter, Karen, and her husband, ex-SHP star and Star-Ledger All-Century defensive back John Merklinger, Sr. of Sparta, are the proud parents of daughters Riley Grace and Nicole, 17, an outstanding student and graduate of Mt. St. Dominic Academy, and the football-playing Merklinger brothers, who include John Jr., Rory and Pop Warner standout Connor, 13.
They, in turn, are equally proud of Grandpa Sempier, who with his strong heart has the youthful enthusiasm of a coach 50 years his junior.
“Dad is amazing,” said Karen. “I remember growing up and I’d hear the phone ring and it would be one of his kicking students and I’d say, ‘Hey dad, you should get paid for what you do in coaching these guys, and he’d respond, saying, ‘This is what I love to do and I don’t want to get paid for it.’
So, it’s back in the old Toyota and on the road again to help make Jersey’s scholastic kickers better than ever before.
Let year No. 52 continue!
Sempier still gets a kick out of coaching
BY STEVE TOBER, The Verona-Cedar Grove Times