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LAKE HUNTINGTON, NY — Mike “Elmo” Ellmauer started coaching local high school sports not long after his Muppet namesake first took to the airwaves on national television.
Ellmauer, who a few years ago was nicknamed after the beloved character on Sesame Street by one of his softball teams, graduated from Jeffersonville-Youngsville Central School in 1976, and later continued his education at the University of Scranton and the University of Vermont, majoring in biology-chemistry and agriculture/bio-chem.
After being convinced by his dad that “teaching isn’t so bad,” he started his career in education as a long-term substitute at Jeff-Youngsville, and finding his niche in the classroom, went “back and got my education credits, and the rest is history.”
Ellmauer began teaching at J-Y in 1983, and with the encouragement of several mentors in the realm of coaching—folks who are still remembered fondly for their dedication to the community—started coaching varsity softball in that same season.
“A couple of good people convinced me to get into coaching,” he recalled of Paul Zintel (J-Y’s legendary basketball coach, who was later inducted into the Basketball Coaches Association of New York; Jerry Davit (Zintel’s long-time assistant turned well-respected referee); and others including “all around coach” Jeff Coewell and footballer Bob Lynch.
On the soccer field, Ellmauer said Tri-Valley’s longtime coach Mary Fuesner, along with locally-based Jane Buddenhagen helped him pick up the intricacies of the game.
“I had no idea of how to coach, they helped me out a lot, watched what I did,” said Ellmauer of his gurus in those early days and the long afternoons devoted to endless practices and perfecting his style as a helmsman.
After the merger of 1999, he switched over to the new Sullivan West Central School and continued teaching several levels of chemistry, along with coaching his chosen outdoor sports of softball and girls’ soccer.
Then it was time to ask him the obligatory question about what sports he played as a student.
“I played a little basketball. It was a disaster, I wasn’t very good, and was cranky,” adding, “I was always a student of the games, but I was awful with a capital ‘A’.”
Well, so much for a stellar sports career in high school and college.
Ellmauer’s coaching philosophy?
“Do the best you can, and see what happens.”
And on the topic of why he’s been in the coaching game for more than three-and-a-half decades, Ellmauer replied, “It gives me a different perspective to see the kids, not in the classroom as a disciplinarian [think a kindly Mr. Chips], but out on the field as part of a team, I see the kids differently and they see me differently.”
He noted that in his first year of coaching softball, the team of ’83 “was a good group of girls at the time—went from being okay to being quite successful.”
He recalled the 1989 girls’ varsity soccer squad, describing the talented cadre of booters as “an interesting group of kids, a bunch of free spirits.”
Comparing yesterday’s scholar athletes to the kids who turn out for sports these days, Ellmauer offered up a few observations.
“The kids need to be active more, reminded of the team spirit. I’m not exactly sure why [it’s different], maybe it’s what they see on television.”
Why is participation in sports considered by a lot of folks to be an integral part of a high school education?
“It gives them an outlet to throw off some steam, and as a social group it gives them a source of belonging, and in a team concept, everybody’s working together.” explained Ellmauer.
Looking ahead to the next five to 10 years in local high school sports, Ellmauer said he foresees more competition with schools in Orange County’s Section IX, young athletes becoming more specialized in what sports they select as a way to get financial support at institutions of higher learning, perhaps adding skeet or trap shooting to the schedule, and “I’d like to see wrestling get a little bigger.”
Asked how much longer he plans to coach at Sullivan West, “Elmo” Ellmauer replied, “I think this is it, I’ve been doing it a long time.
“I’m a little bit old-school and crabby, we’ve got good people and kids coming up, people to take over my spot, a great group of assistants… We co-coach more than ‘I’m the boss, and you’re my underlings’; we work real well together.”
As an observer from the sidelines (think a fly on the wall), the interplay and spirit of cooperation between Ellmauer and his assistants Anthony Durkin and Kurt Scheibe plays out like a well-oiled machine firing on all cylinders.
“Anthony and Kurt are very defensive minded. They devised a couple of schemes that threw off a couple of teams—had them talking to themselves—the kids trust them,” he said.
In a recent girls’ home stand soccer match, Ellmauer added to his status as a “Legend of Section IX” when he took on an unexpected opponent during the game, a slithering snake delayed the game on the soaking wet field.
As the home team coach sprinted to get help, Durkin saved the day by slinging the reptile off the field and into local sports history.
“We’ve had snake and turtle issues here all year,” said Ellmauer, noting that since a few osprey nests were removed, snakes in the grass and turtles in the mud have added to the excitement of playing against the Bulldogs.
“There was quite a collection of snakes and turtles in their nests,” he said.
As the sport of soccer in particular changes with a faster style of play, and formations evolve to keep up with the times at the professional and college level, Ellmauer hinted that it might be time to let others guide the teams to victory or console them in defeat.
“It’s been a good ride,” he said, cogitating a bit on retiring from coaching. “Everything’s a cycle, and we’ll see what happens.”
So as he contemplates closing his coach’s scorebook “big time,” Ellmauer spoke about his appointed moniker.
“It’s been forever. As long as it’s said in respect [his nickname “Elmo”], I don’t worry about it too much.”
On the eve of what may be his retirement from the fires (think St. Elmo’s light, a sign of good fortune) of coaching at Sullivan West, Mike Ellmauer will most likely proudly hang on to his batting helmet displaying for all the world to see the nickname, “Elmo.”