When Hahnville coach Nick Saltaformaggio sought help for a talented player struggling academically a year ago, he had a good idea of where to turn.
Saltaformaggio asked longtime Hahnville educator Denyse Keller to provide a bit of assistance, and that assistance went a long way. Keller tutored the player and helped guide him academically; that player not only graduated, but went on to become eligible to attend Tulane, and a brand new coaching position was born.
Saltaformaggio made Keller his “academic coach,” and it’s a hire he certainly has no regrets for.
“She is the single most important hire I’ve made as the football coach at Hahnville High School,” Saltaformaggio said. “I’d say she’s the most important hire I’ve made at any school, actually.”
Keller, who has taught at Hahnville for the past 27 years, has served in this capacity since January of last year. She focuses solely on players’ academics, attempting to ensure that each student-athlete have a true chance to live up to his potential.
“It was a situation where the child just needed some support,” Keller said of her first “coaching assignment. “It wasn’t that he couldn’t do, it was the fact he needed someone to help him organize his time. Go to practice on Tuesday, on Wednesday go to your lab with the English teacher. He had gotten to a point to where he was overwhelmed.
“So, I think when Coach Salt saw, really, what they needed was someone to keep them on track, follow up, help make sure they took their makeup test … I’ve enjoyed it. It’s a rewarding part of my day, when I’m able to help the kids looking for that extra help.”
She says she isn’t quite used to the “coach” moniker, but that she wears that title with pride.
“It’s different,” Keller said. “It’s funny because I hear it in the halls and it still startles me. I take that title as an honor, though.”
Saltaformaggio said Keller is an integral part of his staff for numerous reasons.
“She’s an educator, first and foremost,” Saltaformaggio said. “She’s experienced at all levels of the system, as a classroom teacher, an administrator … she’s a true Hahnville person. She represents our school with tremendous dignity. One of our team goals is for our kids to have the opportunity to go on to college, and she’s the perfect person to have in charge of guiding our kids to that goal.
“She makes sure they’re registered for the ACT, multiple times … she gets them ready for tests, quizzes … she’s so important for our players. And for me, she’s been someone to lean on. She lends an ear to me so I can get good feedback and figure out what I need to do to be successful coach and leader for our guys.”
Keeping Tiger players on the right track, Keller notes, often comes down to compartmentalizing and breaking down the often difficult task of excelling academically into smaller, manageable goals in order to get there.
“A lot of times it’s slowing down, taking steps, action steps and looking at the pieces it takes to get to the whole,” she said. “A lot of times, it’s just that. The organization of their actions and what do they need to do to get to their end result is what needs addressing.”
Much as it can lead to success on the football field, confidence, Keller says, is a key factor.
“I believe you have to find confidence in yourself, whether it be in academics or on the football field,” Keller said. “(Student-athletes) tend to find it out there on the field and we celebrate it. Sometimes, they have to realize the personal gain of education.
“Sometimes, it’s just a pat on the back that can motivate, just some acknowledgement of their hard work.”Other times, it takes some tough love.
When a student fails to turn in an assignment, or slides backwards in his classwork, Keller has been empowered by Saltaformaggio to make the necessary call to get them back on the right track. If a teacher lets her know a student is in need of extra work, Keller can pull that player out of practice and into a tutoring session. And even now, several weeks removed from the season, players who fail to perform academically will not be allowed to participate in the Tigers’ annual spring game.
“I kind of feel I can be a liaison between the teachers and coaching staff,” Keller said. “If a teacher comes to me and says I really need Joey Tuesday at Alegbra II tutoring, I can go to Salt and he immediately goes with the academics.”
The role seems to fit Keller like a glove. Beyond her teaching experience, she’s no stranger to helping student-athletes with their daily balancing act. She is the mother of three children, each of whom have either graduated or currently attend Hahnville. All have had involvement with Hahnville athletics.
“Maybe it’s partially the mom in me because I do know what it takes,” Keller said. “I know when they come home from practice, they are hungry. They also have homework. And that’s difficult, especially if they don’t have that support system. Not everyone does, and if I can provide that, glad I can.”
Much like positive feedback helps Hahnville student-athletes, it never hurts those who help them along the way, either.
“What’s rewarding to me is when a child comes in to study and passes a test … that’s the best part of this job, to see a child succeed,” Keller said. “That’s the reason I think most teachers go into education, to see that light go off and for them to experience success. It’s wonderful.”