MCCC Women’s Basketball Head Coach Mike Tenaglia to Retire After 30 Years

Story by Brandon Johnson
3/30/20

West Windsor, N.J. – At the start of the 2019-20 Mercer County Community College (MCCC) women’s basketball season, Head Coach Mike Tenaglia didn't really know what to expect.

“I’m not sure what keeps bringing me back to Mercer,” Tenaglia said through a grin. At the time, he was entering his 30th season coaching at the college, a mark to which few other Mercer coaches could lay claim.

Months later, following his retirement from coaching at MCCC, Tenaglia admitted what brought him back to the sidelines year after year: the chance to do something great.

Born in Philadelphia, Tenaglia’s arrival to Mercer happened by chance. After serving in the military and graduating from West Chester University as a multisport athlete, Tenaglia found himself in the athletics world.

“My first coaching job was at Devon Prep,” Tenaglia said. “A friend of mine was coaching varsity there, and he let me take over the JV team.”

When the head coach jumped to Immaculata High School, Tenaglia followed as an assistant. That position led to a five-year stint at Cabrini College, during which he posted a career 53-58 record.

“I took some time off from coaching after that,” Tenaglia said. He stayed active in athletics, moving to an assistant athletics director position at Delaware County Community College, where he played a role in establishing the college’s softball program.

It wasn’t until Tenaglia saw a newspaper ad for MCCC’s women’s basketball head coaching job that he found his way back to the sidelines.

Tenaglia arrived at Mercer ahead of the 1990-91 season. In the 1980s, the team had moderate success, posting winning records under coach Charlie Ross. But the year before Tenaglia joined saw the women’s basketball season forfeited, not playing for the duration of 1980-90.

“When I arrived, there was nothing in the cupboard,” Tenaglia said. “We had seven, maybe eight players for the team, and there wasn’t much basketball experience between them.”

The diluted roster led the women’s basketball team to post just two wins in his first campaign.

“One of those wins was a forfeit,” Tenaglia chuckled. “We did manage to beat Essex, however.” To this day, Essex stands as a benchmark in National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Region 19, regularly fielding competitive teams and amassing winning records.

Though the Lady Vikings flip-flopped between winning and losing seasons for Tenaglia’s first few years, in the mid-90s he and women’s basketball hit their stride.

What made the difference? Recruiting.

“Back then there was no way to recruit outside of the county,” Tenaglia said. “And early on we weren’t getting the top players from the local high schools.

“I think it’s kind of getting lucky sometimes,” Tenaglia admitted. “And as I was able to get more familiar with the county, we were able to recruit a more competitive team.”

His efforts came to a head in the 1997-98 season, when the Lady Vikings finished with their third-consecutive winning season (15-13) while taking their first, of what would be many, Region 19 titles.

The tournament title ignited a series of years in which Mercer women’s basketball was near unstoppable.

Trenton high graduate and local hoops prospect Kenya Taylor signed on with the team in 1999, repeating as region champions while earning NJCAA All-American Honors.

That same year, the Lady Vikings added Angelika Stec, an offensive generator who co-captained Mercer teams that won Region championships in 1999 and 2000 while earning All-Region First Team (1999) and Region Player of the Year (2000).

"[Stec] is one of the best players I've ever coached,” Tenaglia said after winning the region in 2000. “I can't wait to see her play [at LIU Brooklyn] this year. This also proves how our program has stepped up and will help us keep improving."

Indeed, the program continued its positive trajectory, winning 14 consecutive seasons, while taking seven out of eight Region 19 crowns between 1998 and 2005.

The success focused a spotlight on Tenaglia’s influence on the program, which saw several athletes recognized for their talents under his tutelage. Three players earned NJCAA All-America honors during Tenaglia’s tenure - Taylor (1999, 2000), Patti Foley (2007) and Jeanette Bell (2008) – in addition to a host of All-Region selections, most recently in 2018 with Haylee Kieffer.

That recognition gave way to international visibility. Tenaglia was involved in bringing top talent in from overseas, including All-Region players like Uros Kovacevic (Montenegro) and Paco Boussougou (Gabon).

Samantha Cobbs, who played for Tenaglia during Mercer’s back-to-back 20-win seasons in 2008-09 and 2009-10, said that Tenaglia expected all of his players, “no matter the circumstances,” to work hard.

“Coach Mike was known for keeping it real,” Cobbs said. “He would be the first to tell you that we’re going to get blown out by 20 tonight, but if you play smart, tough, together and with heart, maybe we’ll get blown out by 10 instead!”

By 2019, Tenaglia cemented himself as one of the most-winningest coaches in Mercer history, earning 400 career victories.

Though Tenaglia is quick to recognize his players, he also highlighted many of the staff who were the backbone of his MCCC career.

“[Athletics Director] John Simone has been very supportive,” Tenaglia said. “He’s outstanding, as far as making sure the team has everything it needs to be successful, and that includes making sure our athletes are working in the classroom.”

Tenaglia added that past Athletics Directors Doug Kokoskie and John Suarez, as well as his assistant coaches were key in keeping the program successful.

“One of my assistant coaches, Tamika Turner, was great,” Tenaglia said. “She played for me at one point and was very in touch with the local kids at the Westward Community Center in Trenton.

Cobbs was another of Tenaglia’s players-turned-assistant coaches who found that sitting on the bench next to him was completely different from playing for him.

“I always appreciated Coach Mike, but respected him more when it was my turn to sit next to him and help make game-time decisions,” Cobbs said.

“There were times when he would ask [the assistant coaches'] opinions and then stick with his first suggestion. We would just look at each other and smirk. It happened like clockwork but I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Cobbs added.

Tenaglia also pinpointed his former player Regina Brown as a positive influence on his players.

“Regina Brown came in from Texas to be a student and became a great person for the girls to be in touch with. Now Jane Berlinger and Charlie Brown have been instrumental in keeping the program on track.”

Tenaglia also thanked the trainers and administrators, who helped his student athletes daily.

“These are the people who loved what they did and wanted to be a part of this program,” Tenaglia said.

Though Tenaglia won’t be seen pacing the sidelines, his retirement from coaching won’t impact his contributions to Mercer’s community.

“I’ll still be doing some work around Mercer,” Tenaglia said. Throughout the year he works the game clock and bookkeeps for other MCCC sports, pointing back to his career playing basketball, baseball, lacrosse and ice hockey. In the summer he leads Mercer’s youth basketball camp.

Tenaglia also hopes to stay involved with women’s basketball, serving as a resource to the next coach.

“I don’t want to be in a situation where the new coach feels I’m looking over their shoulder, but I want to be a resource for them if they want,” Tenaglia said.

“I’m gonna be at Mercer. I’ll be around.”

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tenaglia Berlinger Brown

 Tenaglia, left, with his 2019-20 assistant coaches Jane Berlinger and Charlie Brown (Feb. 2020).

tenaglia coaching

Tenaglia preps his team during a timeout (Feb. 2020).

tenaglia and players

Tenaglia greets former Lady Viking Tyasia Stephenson (center) and women's basketball Team Manager Cassandra Webb (left) after his final game (Feb. 2020).

tenaglia think pink

Tenaglia coaching during MCCC's Think Pink Fundraiser (Jan. 2020).