By Alex Zener
Corona’s new head football coach Cory Nenaber has been on the job a little over six months now and there are signs that the Aztec football program may be on the right track after a string of disappointing seasons.
Besides winning only 13 games in the past four years, participation was at an all-time low, with less than 40 players on the varsity team last season.
Numbers don’t lie. The hiring of former Corona alum and former Corona assistant football coach Nenaber seems by all appearances to have more than doubled the number of athletes interested in football.
“We consistently had between 100 and 115 kids come out to spring football, and the numbers did not drop off for our summer program,” said Nenaber.
What has Nenaber, only the fifth head football coach in the school’s history, done differently to increase the numbers?
To begin, Nenaber, an assistant Corona football coach for 10 years and popular teacher at the school, automatically fits into Corona’s longstanding tradition of coaches belonging and being part of not only the school but its stable community.
We tend to like our own, so to speak, and Corona has been around long enough now that former students are often sought after as teachers and coaches.
Tradition and longevity are important at Corona, as well.
For instance, Gary Ventura took over after Larry Hughes, who was Corona’s first head football coach and the only one to win a state football championship (1980 Division IV) changed sports after eight years to win several girls basketball state championships for the Lady Aztecs. Ventura was the head coach for 23 years before retiring at the end of the 2009 season.
Another example is Sam Duane Sr., Corona’s first basketball coach, who was at the helm for 18 years before retiring. Assistant coach Joe Maisel took over for six years before Sam Duane Jr., Corona alumnus and former assistant coach, returned for his dream job after gaining experience as Mesquite’s head coach.
Three straight state championships and 11 years later he is not going anywhere soon.
“Being able to come back to Corona has been like a dream to me,” said Nenaber. “I missed Corona’s tradition, its tight-knit community. How they stick together. How they love their orange and yellow.”
Second, Nenaber, along with another long-time assistant coach and Corona alumnus Tim Kelly, were both popular choices to take over for Venturo when he retired but were passed over for Zane Zamenski in 2010.
Parents were not happy about the choice and let the athletic department and principal know. It would have been hard for anyone from the outside to fill Venturo’s shoes, but Zamenski definitely did not come close which was only heightened when the team only won one game and lost 10 that 2010 season.
In hindsight, it may have been a good decision because Nenaber left Corona for Maricopa, where he not only gained valuable experience as a head coach but proved he could revive a program that had not had consecutive winning seasons in 20 years.
While Corona’s football program was falling apart, Nenaber helped Maricopa to a 19-22 record over four years making the playoffs in 2012. He was awarded Division III coach of the year in 2012.
It was his other job, as the Rams’ athletic director, that may help him the most in his job as Corona’s head football coach.
“What I learned from being an athletic director at Maricopa has helped me tremendously in other aspects of my football coaching career,” said Nenaber. “I learned how to deal with situations such as how to deal with parents, how to handle conflict, how to get organized. All sorts of skills that have made me a better at my coaching job.”
Thirdly, Nenaber entered the job with mostly positive parent and community support, which may have initially given him a boost over the last two coaches who tried to take Venturo’s place.
Nenaber feels good about the support he has received so far but is adamant that he and his assistant coaches are not going to change their philosophy just to keep that support.
“Word of mouth and parental support are important to us, of course,” said Nenaber. “But we are not going to sacrifice our beliefs just to get the support of the parents.”
“We are going to treat their kids the right way, and we believe that parents will understand and give us their support.”
What exactly is treating kids the right way?
Nenaber and his assistant coaches care about winning but not at the sacrifice of their players.
“I want to give my players a similar experience to what I had in the 1990s at Corona with Coach Ventura,” said Nenaber.
“Venturo cared about you as a person. He cared about your development into a quality person as much as he cared about winning.”
“It’s not that he did not care about winning. He just cared about the person just as much.”
Caring about each player does not mean discipline will go by the wayside. Nenaber’s first goal has been to change the negative culture that has surrounded the program the past four years.
“We are going to have discipline but it’s going to be in a very positive atmosphere,” said Nenaber. “I’m a positive disciplinarian. I tell parents, ‘I’m going to treat your kids like I treat mine.”
Another goal is to make kids want to become part of the football program.
“No one really likes to go to practice. It’s a hard, hot, tough game,” said Nenaber. “The biggest thing we have to do is to change the culture of the program so kids want to play football, and to do that we are going to try to make it fun.
“Don’t get me wrong, we are going to work really hard so that we can enjoy Friday night, but at the same time we are trying to make Corona football an experience they will remember and be proud they were part of long after they have graduated and moved on.”
Changing the culture and making it a program that high school kids will remember and be proud to be part of is exactly what Tim Kelly did when he took over Corona’s fading track program four years ago. Not only did he triple the number of athletes who came out for his program but the boys team won the Division I state championship this past spring.
Change does not happen overnight, and it’s been a busy six months for Nenaber.
“The transition from being hired in December to now has been crazy but good. We’ve had spring ball and summer workouts where I’ve gotten to know the kids better,” said Nenaber.
“Next week we will head off to football camp where we will continue to work on improving the culture as well as the football skills.”
Nenaber’s number one goal is not only to resurrect the football program for the school but to restore community pride.
“We believe we can restore pride back into the program. We can make Corona football something the kids and community can be really proud of again,” said Nenaber. “If we can create a positive culture where kids are proud to be an Aztec, proud to wear their orange colors again, then I think the numbers will take care of themselves.”
What numbers are targeted by the coaching staff?
“We want to be competitive, have winning seasons and consistently make the playoffs,” said Nenaber. “There is no reason we should not make the playoffs every year and be part of the post season conversation.”
The Aztecs leave for football camp to be held at Blue Ridge High School in Pinetop on July 21. Aug. 4 is the first day of practice for the fall season.