By: Sean Farrell – Record Sports Department
TJ Kroncke isn’t backing down from a challenge.
Kroncke will take on one of the biggest rebuilding projects in North Jersey as the new football coach at Palisades Park/Leonia.
The Bergen County co-op went 1-8 last season and continued to deal with off-the-field issues from coaching turnover to low participation.
There’s a long road ahead for the Tigers, but Kroncke sees a lot of potential in his team. It takes resilience to stick with a program that’s going through tough times.
TJ Kroncke, center, has been named new head football coach at Pal Park/Leonia. Here he is after the Bergen All-Star football game with coach Joseph Gingerelli, left, and Lyndhurst coach Rich Tuero. (Photo: Special to NorthJersey.com)
“These kids have been beaten up on for the last two, three years,” Kroncke said. “They’re going to be able to bounce back from adversity, hopefully, and really stay positive. That’s a big goal with our schedule.”
When asked about joining the Tigers, Kroncke said he heard good things about their young core. They return the top passer in Leo Driottez, rusher in Stephano Hadoulis and receiver in Chris McKnight. All three are juniors, along with 6-foot-4 receiver Derrick Bueno, who can out-jump a number of corners.
“My skill kids are constantly doing work,” Kroncke said. “They definitely improved. They went to some camps. I see it already that they’ve taken a step in the right direction.”
McKnight was one of the most productive players in all of North Jersey last year with 39 catches for 640 yards. It’s possible that the coaching staff will move him to quarterback to maximize his talent. He did get some reps there last fall after Driottez was injured.
“He’s the best overall athlete on the team, hands down,” Kroncke said of McKnight.
Leonia won three sectional titles as an independent team in the 1950’s.
For Palisades Park, its only championship came in 1991 under coach Babe Mongilia.
The programs joined forces at the turn of the century and the merger brought some good seasons. The Tigers went 9-3 in 2012 and won eight games the next year, but haven’t earned a winning record since. They were winless just two years ago.
For Palisades Park/Leonia, the mounting losses on the field have come with annual changes on the sideline.
Kroncke is the program’s fourth coach in as many seasons and the sixth in seven years.
That means his seniors have listened to a different voice each season. He likes the way linemen Nate Meano and Dennis Bajanov have taken on leadership roles in camp, but will the rest of the team buy into a new culture?
“The turnover in coaches turned some kids off in numbers,” said Kroncke, who also coaches wrestling at Wood-Ridge. “It’s really just getting the kids out and trying to get the multi-sport athletes to come back from both schools.”
With about 33 kids on the roster, the basic goal is to get more competitive.
If the Tigers can gel on offense and capitalize on their talented junior class, they can win a few games in 2019.
“I’d like to be in every game,” Kroncke said. “You don’t want to see 40-0 blowouts anymore.”