During a midweek lunch period earlier this fall, some members of the Westlake football team gathered around the same table. John Castellano, their new coach one season after leaving Poughkeepsie High School, found them as he walked through cafeteria and suddenly it was on. His notepad and pen came out and their chairs were circled around him.
“He was explaining to us how to stop something, I think,” senior captain Michael Hernandez said. “I can’t remember exactly, but there were at least eight of us there and it was definitely pretty funny.”
That Castellano’s impromptu Xs and Os session amused rather than irritated his players said plenty about the fledgling relationship between the coach and his team. In his first year at the school, the two-time state champion has struck a chord. Both he and his players were hungry to win again and win they have.
“We were ready to learn what Castellano had to teach us,” Hernandez said. “You obviously have to give him all the credit. He’s taught us so much about technique, how to practice. He’s been perfect for us.”
The Wildcats, who enter Saturday’s Class B state quarterfinal against Marlboro at 8-2, exacted revenge for one of their regular season losses by beating top-seeded Nanuet 6-0 in last week’s Section 1 final. As Castellano pointed out, his team failed to score a touchdown over eight quarters against Nanuet yet remained the one standing.
He said that determination and focus were clear when he first met the players last spring. Westlake returned 17 seniors this year, five of which played varsity ball as sophomores.
“Certainly the kids have reacted well to what we’re doing here. They just love the game of football,” said Castellano, who was named the Jets’ high school Coach of the Week this week. “They’re enthusiastic. They’re passionate about it. It’s easy to work with those kind of kids. Everyone is there and ready to go. We’ve had no issues off the field. It’s been a pleasure to work in that kind of situation.”
Castellano, of course, had plenty of success previously at Nyack. His program made six trips to states and won Class A state titles in 2000 and 2003. But after the 2010 season, Castellano left to coach the defensive line at national power Don Bosco Prep. He was there for two-plus seasons before Poughkeepsie hired him in Aug. 2013 to replace popular coach Ken Barger, who was under investigation for assisting students during exams.
It’s an understatement to say the situation produced unexpected results. Poughkeepsie, one of the section’s top programs at the time, went just 4-13 and Castellano resigned last Nov. 6 — just 12 days after the Pioneers’ last game.
“It was a difficult situation. At the time when I accepted the job, I had enjoyed my time at Bosco and reenergized myself, but I knew I had aspirations of being a head coach again,” Castellano said. “I knew it was going to be tough. It was 65 miles from Nyack each way, and I just wore out. It was hard to run a program that way.”
Castellano, who retired from teaching in Nyack in 2014, has worked as a permanent sub this year at Westlake, allowing him to form the same type of bonds he enjoyed while coaching and working at Nyack. That includes players visiting him during school — and Castellano famously returning the favor, of course.
The outcome has been something of best-laid-plans for the coach, players and school. Their championship was the program’s first since 1983.
“I’ve changed my ways a little bit, but my philosophy is that I’m a perfectionist,” Castellano said. “We don’t leave the practice field until we get it right. The kids have really bought into that.”
“It has all lined up for us,” Hernandez said. “Coach ‘Cas’ came in and put us over the top. It’s been a great season. And that’s why none of us want it to end.”