The late Kenmore East coach and teacher Lou Reuter coined the phrase, “Once a Bulldog, Always a Bulldog.”
Gary Tocke takes that to heart.
Tocke started the Ken-East Boys Volleyball program back in 1968, coaching for 41 years before he retired in 2009.
This summer the athletic department was having difficulty finding a coach for the team and reached out to Tocke in late July. The program, which begins its 50th year, holds a special place in his heart.
“It’s a deep-rooted feeling,” Tocke said. “It meant so much to me throughout my teaching and coaching days here (at Ken-East). When I saw they couldn’t find anyone to coach, I didn’t want to see the program go.”
In his first 41 years as the head coach Tocke amassed 500 wins, five Niagara Frontier League titles and seven Section VI championships. He was inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame in 2016. Tocke is also a member of the WNY Volleyball Coaches Hall of Fame and coached track for serval years.
Tocke first met with the team in mid-August and has been working with them since. As of right now, Tocke is by himself coaching both the varsity and the JV teams.
For senior Nolan DeJesus, it has been surreal to work someone with the accolades and success that Tocke has achieved.
“It amazing,” DeJesus said. “He brings so much experience and kind of revived us. It’s a fresh start.”
Tocke hasn’t followed the team closely in the past few years and didn’t know too much about the players before practices began.
“I knew very little about them,” Tocke admitted. “These past two and half weeks of practice I’ve been trying to analyze where they can play to their fullest potential. The players have to be in a position where they are going to be beneficial to the team. It’s starting fall into place.”
Some of those pieces that are finding their spots quickly are DeJesus and classmate Chris Donn.
DeJesus and Donn have stood out as leaders so far.
“DeJesus has a lot of ability. He’s a big strong kid who could be a tremendous outside hitter,” Tocke said of his seniors. “Donn is fundamentally sound.”
Connor Donnellon, Jason Hayward and Jeremy Campagna are vying for the setter position.
Even though the Bulldogs haven’t had great success in recent years and the numbers are low, Tocke is optimistic about what his team can do.
“They are really wonderful kids who have been coming to practice and working very diligently,” Tocke said. “I keep telling them, ‘don’t sell yourselves short’. We have some guys with size and that can play the game very well.”
The Bulldogs open their season Tuesday at home against rival Kenmore West at 5 p.m.
Although the gym has been renovated since he last coached he still feels a sense of nostalgia. It’s that nostalgia that motives Tocke to provide the effort to the current players as they did those in the past.
“The gym at Kenmore East is a special place,” Tocke said. “Each and every kid on this team, whether they are varsity or JV, means a lot to me. I will do anything possible to help these guys out.”