High School Football Coach Transforms Program into State Contenders

Published: 09th November 2009
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Coach A.J. Hoenstine is the preacher who teaches the modern religion of football to these young men. He has earned the faith of his congregation of players and fans by turning the one-win team he inherited into District 6AA champions in less than five years. Those who step up to his challenges are baptized by fire. To watch the change in the young men who make it through Hoenstine's program is to watch a complete transformation. When the football season begins these kids are dough; when over, they are rock.

"What we do here echoes in eternity," Hoenstine tells his players coming off the field. It is the Pennsylvania District 6AA championship game at Mansion Park in Altoona, in a small football field surrounded by bare metal stands. Martinsburg isn't supposed to be in the playoffs, let alone in the championship game against Central Cambria. The kids are too small, the school is too rural. Their practice field is a stone's throw from a cornfield.

And yet here they are. He paces the sidelines like an animal. When he speaks, his face is ablaze with an intensity that holds the players' attention like headlights grab deer. "All it takes is all you've got, all the time!" The mantra continues. This is not an average Cinderella story where the underdog sneaks by for the win. In front of a shocked audience, the Central Martinsburg Dragons march up and down the field with ease, imposing their will on the opponent. The final score: 41-6.

"Get out your study guides," Hoenstine tells his class. This is now a different place. The season is over. Players covered in dirt, plastered to them by their own sweat and blood, have now been replaced by the children who make up Hoenstine's science class at the Spring Cove Middle School.

The pictures of his glory days still paint the high-school hallways. In one picture you see a close-up of him under center for the football team. His school records in basketball and baseball still rest as standards of excellence, taunting would-be challengers with the absurdity of the statistics.

After graduating from high school, Hoenstine enjoyed a successful baseball career at Mansfield University, a powerhouse at the Division II level. At Mansfield, Hoenstine received his degree in elementary education, before returning to the community that gave him his start in life.

"To be a good coach, you need to be a good teacher." This belief was planted in Hoenstine by his father, a former coach in the area, just like his father before him. The coaching pedigree of the Hoenstine family was impressive enough that when the Central School District went looking for fresh blood to pump into its comatose football program, they gambled on the newest generation of Hoenstine. Somehow, A.J. never got the notice that he was supposed to feel the pressure of living up to expectations. What he does feel is the anger that his players have felt through their losing seasons. Speculation about lack of talent and size weighed down the football program that hadn't finished with a winning record in many years.

"Guys don't think you're tough enough to play them," says Hoenstine, whose knuckles turn white when he talks about his team's doubters. The critics have become silent in the wake of Central's dominating success. "When he sets out to do something, he'll do it," says Dave Hoenstine, A.J.'s father. "He's someone to look up to. He is everything a father could want in a son."

"The best coach is the one who treats his players like his own sons," says Hoenstine, who attributes his success as a coach to the birth of his two sons, Jeff, 4, and Jay, 1, and how he now understands the importance of trying to turn boys into men. "I sometimes wish the parents knew how special the players are to us."

How far can Hoenstine take next year's team? "State championship," he says without missing a beat. He then allows himself a rare, sly smile. "All it takes is all you've got, all the time."

Amen, coach. Amen.

Written by: Wes Culp (for uwemp.com)

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