Expressway: A coach who made a difference -- an appreciation

(Left) Bill Martens speaks to a lacrosse player

(Left) Bill Martens speaks to a lacrosse player at Ward Melville High School in an undated photo. Martens, who died May 8, 2014, was assistant lacrosse coach at the East Setauket high school for more than two decades, starting in 1973. (Right) Martens, who was head football and lacrosse coach at Half Hollow Hills for several years until 1973, is carried on the shoulders of players after a football victory in the 1960s. Photo Credit: Martens family photo

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At a recent alumni lacrosse game at Half Hollow Hills High School East in Dix Hills, players and spectators took a moment at halftime to remember a former coach and teacher, Bill Martens.

Martens coached a generation of Long Island lacrosse and football players and was remembered fondly for his toughness and discipline. He died May 8 after a long illness. He was 84.

Half Hollow Hills alumnus James Metzger, a businessman and philanthropist from Point Lookout, spoke to the crowd of about 100 people at the May 31 alumni game.

Martens "preferred the intellectual side of life and would rather paint than exercise," Metzger recalled. "He had a voracious appetite for literature and history. Bill was always reading and sharing his thoughts with like minded people."

As a coach, Martens loved strategy and considered the opportunity to out-coach his competition a blessing in his life, said Metzger, who was a high school All-American.

A history teacher for more than 30 years, Martens coached lacrosse and football at Half Hollow Hills High School from 1959 to 1973, and then joined the lacrosse coaching staff under Ward Melville's Joe Cuozzo for more than two decades. In 1991, Martens was inducted into the Long Island Metro Chapter of the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

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In 1973, Martens was honored as Suffolk County coach of the year.

"At the awards dinner," Metzger said, "Bill made a speech, announced his retirement and had drink at the bar, where he met Joe Cuozzo. Within two hours and a few cocktails, Bill unretired to coach at Ward Melville for 32 more years."

Among the star athletes who played under Martens at Half Hollow Hills was Raymond Enners, a U.S. Military Academy graduate killed in combat in Vietnam. Enners would later be honored with the creation of the Lt. Raymond Enners Award, the NCAA's annual award for the most outstanding men's lacrosse player.

Charlie Brown, a Ward Melville goalie went on to become an All-American at Washington and Lee in 1978, recalled one practice with Martens in the 1970s.

Brown said that during practice on a cold spring day, the coach who normally warmed him up with a few shots on goal was absent.

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"Hey coach, can you warm me up?" Brown said he asked Martens.

Martens wrapped his overcoat around Brown and walked a few steps with him before asking, "Are you warm?"

A puzzled Brown then realized his coach was either joking or, because he had never played the game, wasn't able to take shots to get the goalie warmed up.

Cuozzo said Martens was a friend and mentor who guided him through his early years of coaching.

"His analytical mind and ability to adapt to game situations made him an invaluable asset to our team at Ward Melville," Cuozzo said in an email to me. "He had a wonderful sense of humor which made him well liked by his players. He will be missed by all who knew and loved him."

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Martens stressed conditioning to avoid injuries. And he was a taskmaster, often directing players who suffered minor injuries to just "run it off" -- a policy unlikely to be practiced by coaches today.

A signature Martens conditioning drill was a running exercise he called "the U.S. Military Academy." Athletes ran five or six fast laps of the quarter-mile track, with 10 push-ups between each. During conditioning, players would work up to 10 laps.

He was also a strict disciplinarian and a staunch believer in following the rules, a characteristic he imbued in his players. Several players who broke the rules faced dismissal.

Lou DiBlasi, a longtime friend who coached with Martens from 1967 at Half Hollow Hills, said the coach "had one of the greatest football and lacrosse minds of anyone I ever met."

DiBlasi said Martens always tried to outthink his opponents, using strategy as the first step toward defeating them.

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The website laxpower.com reported that during Martens' time at Ward Melville, the team won seven state championships under Cuozzo. Martens was cited for perfecting the "backer-zone" defense that Ward Melville teams used successfully.

After Hills, Martens continued teaching and was a defensive football coach under Sal Serpe at Great Neck South High School, from 1973 to 1998. He retired from teaching in the early 1990s.

A resident of Mount Sinai, he and his wife, Helen Martens, had eight children and 20 grandchildren. Martens was born on Jan. 10, 1930, in Brooklyn, and attended Manual Training High School, where played football. He went on to play football at Syracuse and transferred to Adelphi College. He served in the Army during the Korean War.

I played lacrosse under Martens for three seasons from 1968-70 at Half Hollow Hills. He taught me that hard physical training and self-discipline are the keys to success on the playing field and in life. I will always remember him fondly.

Bill Gertz, formerly of Dix Hills, is a journalist in Washington, D.C.

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