Changing of the guard
Noltner excited about coaching Comets
By Greg Seubert
Take a look at Tom Noltner’s calendar and there’s probably a big circle around Friday, Aug. 19.
That’s the day the longtime assistant football coach at Waupaca High School will make his debut as the Comets’ new coach in the team’s season opener at Green Bay East.
Noltner, a physical education and health teacher at the school and an assistant coach since 1990, is replacing former coach John Koronkiewicz, who stepped down after 32 seasons.
“I’ve always been waiting,” Noltner said. “I knew at some point he couldn’t go forever. Things change and he wanted to move on to the next phase in his life.
“I’ve been preparing for the last 20 years,” he said. “I take notes for every game. I’ve looked at my notes from every year: what I liked, what maybe we could change or make better. I’ve gone back and tried to implement some of those for the upcoming season.”
Noltner is taking over one of the state’s most successful football programs. The Comets won WIAA Division 3 state championships in 2006 and 2008 and also made the state finals in 1994, 2002 and 2012.
Noltner was on the sidelines in all five of those seasons and is a big reason why the Comets have the second-longest current streak of consecutive playoff appearances dating back to 1991. His teams also won 20 conference championships.
“I’ve been spending, four, five, six hours a day since I accepted the position,” Noltner said. “I’m constantly working on football items. A lot of things had to be done with regards to setting things up, organizing things, equipment. It’s the basic things that every coach has to do. There are a lot of details that you don’t see. It’s eight to 10 e-mails a day that I get and probably 75 percent of them have to be replied to. That takes a lot of my time. My wife and two boys have been helping me organize things with equipment.”
One big change fans will notice is new uniforms.
“There will be white helmets, but there’ll be decals and numbers on the back,” Noltner said. “That’ll be a big change. New uniforms was something that was in the making because of the school color changing back to navy (blue).
“The kids are excited,” he added. “It’s the NFL pro-style tight uniforms that everybody has right now. The uniforms are navy blue with sort of a silver-grayish color with some white. The helmets are still white with navy blue facemasks. We won’t show the kids the decals and they won’t be on the helmet until that first week. Former players have called me, e-mailed me, people I don’t even know have asked me, ‘Are you going to put something on that helmet?’ I’ve told them, ‘Yeah’ and they’re wondering what. I said, ‘Well, you have to wait and see.’ I get questions all the time and a lot of times I don’t know the people.”
The Comets will unveil the new uniforms at Haberkorn Field Friday, Sept. 2, during the home opener against New London.
“A lot of people will be here for the first time just to see what’s going on,” Noltner said. “It will be tough going on the road for two games. The good thing is we’re not quite in school yet, so I think that’ll help the kids.”
“We’re doing things a little different,” Noltner said. “The weight room is open in the morning, it’s open in the evening to give kids opportunities to come in with work schedules and all that. The times of practice will be a little different. We’re going to start earlier because it is so hot out. I think that will benefit us.”
Noltner has met with players a few times since taking the program over.
“We had one meeting at the very end of the school year just to let everybody know what’s going on in the summer,” he said. “When Koronk did announce his retirement, we had a meeting a few days later just letting them know that even though a head coach was not appointed at that time, we were going to continue as assistants to keep everything going until a head coach was found.
“They’ve asked a lot of questions,” he said. “They’re curious. With change, they’re a little anxious, a little nervous, but I think what is going to work well is we’re keeping things pretty similar. There are going to be some changes in the way we do things – some new wrinkles with the offense – but with the short turnaround here, we’re trying to keep things as similar as we can. Wholesale changes wouldn’t be good right now. That’s something we can look at at the end of the season. We’ve reassured them that we’re all here for the same reason. They shouldn’t worry. We’ll all make this transition together.”
Noltner isn’t the only assistant coach to spend several years with the team. Two of Noltner’s assistants – Jay Krcmar and Neil Sternweis – coached under Koronkiewicz for several seasons and are still on board.
“The staff is pretty much all intact at the varsity, JV and freshman levels,” Noltner said. “The consistency is very important because you don’t have to constantly be looking over your shoulder to see if that guy’s doing what you want him to be doing. It’s worked in the past and we trust each other. Koronk had that trust in me that when we got together, he knew exactly what we were supposed to do and we got it done. Over the years, he trusted us more and more, especially me with running the defense. He knew I would do everything I possibly can to make it work.”
Noltner has served as the team’s defensive coordinator since 1993.
“I’m still going to continue to call the defense,” he said. “I feel that I know it better than anybody else, but the assistants are well-coached in it also. I am going to have some say in the offense. Three of us are going to work together in setting up offensive plays and the game plan for the week. We’ll work very closely on game night.”
Still in the Bay
The Comets are back for a second season in the Bay Conference. Waupaca posted a 4-4 record in the league and was 4-5 overall last year, but still qualified for the WIAA playoffs for the 25th straight season.
The Bay includes 2015 playoff teams West De Pere, Seymour, Xavier and Menasha, as well as Green Bay East, Green Bay West, New London and Shawano.
Waupaca’s four losses in the Bay last year came at the hands of the playoff teams.
“One of our goals is to be in the upper half of the conference,” Noltner said. “(West De Pere, Seymour, Xavier and Menasha) are the top four. We want to be in the top four also. With hard work and trying to keep things simplified, hopefully, we can be in that top level and make the playoffs.
“You always have to feel you lose some great players, but that’s what makes it fun,” he said. “Next year’s seniors and juniors have to step up. They know it’s their team. They have to fill those shoes. They’ve seen how it’s been done with the success we’ve had. It’s their turn to be those leaders, encourage one another, be great teammates and make this transition go well for everybody.”
Noltner will also continue to coach the boys’ golf team, which he has done since 2010. He also coached the girls’ basketball team in 2004-05 and spent eight seasons as a boys’ JV basketball coach.
“It’s always helpful to be a head coach in another sport,” he said. “You know the little things behind the scene that have to be done. I always helped Koronk behind the scene with a lot of things because it is a lot. You really do need to lean on your assistants and give them responsibilities. That’s what I’m doing. I’ve given each team practice and game responsibilities and everybody knows their role. It’ll take a little pressure off me if they can do those things.”
Noltner didn’t hesitate when asked what he was looking forward to as coach.
“I love being with the kids,” he said. “I have two sons out there (Tegan and Trey) and one’s going to be a senior. I have a vested interest in this program and I want to make it the best I can for them and all the other kids that are out there.
“It’s a lot of fun when there’s success,” he said. “Everyone’s feeling good about themselves. On the other hand, it’s difficult when there’s not success. You have to try to look at what can we do this week to make it better. You have to stay positive no matter what. That’s the time you have to learn on others for their support and knowledge. We have a lot of knowledgeable people here and some great kids. I don’t believe it pays to harp on a player over and over. He made a mistake, but it’s not that he tried to make a mistake. We’ll pull him out and quickly talk to him, but my philosophy is get him right back in the game. Even if he makes the same mistake, we’re going to pull him out, talk to him and get him right back in. At times, you’re going to hear it from us, but there are a lot of other things going on in life that could be worse.”
Whether Noltner and his staff coach the Comets to a 26th consecutive playoff berth remains to be seen, but he’s up for the challenge.
“Hopefully, we can continue that great tradition,” he said. “The one thing we’ll do is work hard. Success comes in getting some wins, but there’s success in other ways: working hard; making it fun; keeping it safe; giving the kids the lifelong memories and the lessons that they learn out here on the football field and in games. Hopefully, they can share those experiences with their kids, family and grandkids and remember it as a positive experience.”