‘Don’t call it a comeback, I been here for years.’ Paulie Johnsen and his vision of changing the culture has revived St. Mary’s football

Bring it back to the old in a new way. That is the Vision of St. Mary’s High School Head Football Coach Paulie Johnsen.

“It’s pretty simple, we have to do things the right way. From the classroom to the field, the way we behave and the way we do things around here is our measuring stick for success” Johnsen said.

Clear expectations and goals are vital to changing the culture of any program and Johnsen drew from his experience as a player and an assistant coach at St. Mary’s to make that change a reality.

Johnsen an all-state running back for the Gaels in 1998 played under legendary coach Mike Sheridan from 1994 to 1998. Johnsen was a Gael assistant for the small school in Rutherford from 2009 to 2016 before becoming head coach in 2021.

St. Mary’s program, under Sheridan’s tenure, was 31 years and 201 wins — a powerhouse in the NJIC conference while making 22 straight parochial B playoff appearances and 11 finals. winning the Non-public Group 1 state championship in 2006.

After Sheridan stepped down, the program experienced some tough years.

“All programs go through a decline, lean years. It’s tougher at a small catholic school like St. Mary’s. The history of our football program is a hard act to follow, to say the least,” Johnsen said. “Coach Sheridan and Coach Jack Jones made it about family. There was a great tradition built on a solid foundation. A lot of what I learned back then and as an assistant coach I have applied as a head coach.”

After leaving the program in 2016, ironically St. Marys last winning season, Johnsen still always found himself around the program. In 2021, Johnsen was approached by Sheridan and then Athletic Director Dennis Hulse about taking over as head coach. They needed someone to change the direction of the program. There was a strong freshman class in place and they obviously wanted to keep those players at St. Mary’s.

Johnsen agreed and took over the Gaels in week 3 of the season. Johnsen remembers being asked if he could salvage the season.

“I had six weeks, anything could happen. I was all in from jump street. My mindset was let’s see where it goes and we will take it from there,” he said.

The Gaels finished the 2021 season with a record of 1 win 7 losses. But a team’s record doesn’t always tell the entire story. Johnsen inherited a team three weeks into the season with 17 kids on the roster.

Twelve of those kids were freshman. If you’re wondering how to play a full varsity schedule with 17 kids, never mind 12 freshman, well the answer was simple.

“They wanted to play, they showed effort, they played through injuries, they worked hard in practice and they found a way to compete,” Johnsen said. “Numbers allow you to establish a next-man-up mentality that was really not an option in 2021, but you work with what you got and that’s exactly what we did.”

In 2022, Johnsen revamped his coaching staff.

Mike Goff became defensive coordinator, Anthony Pontoriero led wide receivers and defensive backs, Steph Barat coached defensive ends and tight ends, Mike Negron coached QBs, Will Calderon defensive tackles and running backs and Nick Falzarano was responsible for defensive backs and wide receivers.

“My coaches are a direct reflection of me. We tell the kids they need to do things the right way, and that starts from the top on down,” Johnsen said.

The Gaels finished the 2022 season 2 and 6. They increased their roster to 30 kids and they were very competitive. With only a few graduating seniors, their roster was still young and Johnsen was optimistic about the upcoming 2023 season.

“We were collectively working through our growing pains and I was starting to see that light go on for everyone,” the coach said. “There was a new energy, an excitement that had been missing for a long time.”

In camp this past summer, things were looking up for the Gaels. Growing as a head coach with his young players over two seasons, Johnsen built a special relationship with this group.

Leadership on the field, in the locker room and outside the school walls is paramount to the success of any team and the Gaels have four impressive captains.

Kazir White is a junior wide receiver, linebacker, defensive back and running back, and, oh wait for this, he plays some quarterback too. He tore his ACL his sophomore year but he made a full recovery.

“The team feeds off of Kazir. It all starts with him. He’s a true Gael,” Johnsen said.

Recovering from surgery, though, was a struggle for White.

“It was depressing, I felt stuck, but I worked hard and made it back. It took a few games but I was 100% in the Hasbrouck Heights game. That was a great feeling,” White said. “I really came to St. Mary’s for the wrong reasons, I was all about me and playing football. I had no interest in making friends — I was being an individual — but that quickly changed. I realized that St. Mary’s is a brotherhood and my teammates and friends at school became my second family. We had 17 players on our roster my freshman year but that didn’t matter. We adopted a no man left behind mentality, every man counts. We just keep getting better”.

Nasir Owens, meanwhile, is a junior running back.

“He’s undersized but outworks anyone, he will do anything for his team. He is definitely a lead by example kind of player,” Johnsen said.

Owens rushed for 1,216 yards and 14 touchdowns on the season.

Messiah Atkins is a junior center.

“He’s the glue upfront on our offensive line. He is the brains of that unit and he has a great locker room presence,” Johnsen said.

Also, Atkins gave a lot of credit to his offensive line coach.

“Coach Goff is a big part of why we are where we are now. He teaches us every day, we can rely on him, and he believes in us as a group. He is a big reason why I made all league first team. My teammates on the O-line are the reason we had a lot of success this year. We all work together,” Atkins said.

Last but not least, Bradly Higgins is a junior quarterback.

Higgins never played football until he arrived at St. Mary’s.

“Brad is a tough, hard-nosed player who has a lot of passion and is very coachable,” Johnson said.

Higgins led the NJIC in passing this season with 1,730 yards. He also threw 14 touchdowns.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention standout wide receiver BJ Cunningham. The junior had 13 touchdowns on the season and was a major offensive threat for the Gaels.

It’s very rare you see four juniors as team captains, but something has to be said for chemistry and playing together. Each captain brings something unique to the leadership role. This was evident throughout the 2023 campaign as the Gaels completed its first winning season in seven years, finishing third in the NJIC Patriot Division with 2 wins 2 losses, (6 wins, 5 losses overall.)

The Gaels earned a playoff berth in the Non-public B section, where they lost to power house DePaul Catholic.

“Playing DePaul was a great experience for our kids. We took away a lot from that game as a team. What we need to do to get better, to get to that next level, (and) we believe it’s reachable,” Johnsen said.

There is no doubt St. Mary’s has turned a corner. Their vision is one that is built around truth. There is no substitute for honesty in coaching. Like at all good programs the Gaels have the same building blocks, consistency, preparation, discipline, energy, trust and hard work. All of the above are key factors in their culture change process and it’s not something that happens overnight — but two years in, it’s looking quite promising.

The message I thought I heard the loudest was no one person is bigger than the team. When 30+ kids understand the concept of “team first” someone is doing something right that’s for sure.

Earlier this year, I made it to a home game at St. Mary’s. The stands were packed. The energy was high on the sidelines. They played physical, disciplined football for four quarters. The motivation, coordination and instruction from the staff was very good. The entire environment had a winning feel to it. The outcome was a win 21-14 over a tough Woodridge team.

St. Mary’s in a short time has rebuilt that solid foundation coach Johnsen touched on from his playing days with a core of talented players and a blue-collar coaching staff. With a senior heavy roster and a solid freshman class coming in the Gaels will set their goals a little higher for the upcoming 2024 season.

After years being down, the old saying now rings true more than ever: “It’s a great day to be a Gael.”

Learn more about the writer ...

Bobby Crudele | Special to The Observer

Det. Sgt. Robert Crudele (Harrison Police Department) is a freelance sports journalist who covers high school sports outside The Observer's coverage area.