December 6, 2021

Mike Discenza: From three-sport star at Homer High to Red Dragons’ women’s golf coach

SUNY Cortland Red Dragons Logo

Mike Discenza was a three-sport athlete at Homer Central School who graduated in 2000. He was also one of my first interviews as a sports writer at the Cortland Standard in the fall of 1999.

Discenza named the head coach of the SUNY Cortland women’s golf program for a second time starting this 2020-21 season. Discenza was the program’s assistant coach this past spring and previously served as the Red Dragons’ head coach from the spring of 2007 through the 2011-12 season. Discenza replaces Joe Tesori, Jr., who stepped down after eight seasons to pursue professional opportunities with the PGA.

Discenza left the area briefly, but always welcomed the return to settle in Homer to continue his coaching career and enjoy raising his family. He also serves as Cortland’s Athletics’ equipment room supervisor. From 2016-19 he was an assistant coach on Cortland’s football coaching staff, including three years as defensive coordinator.

“I’m thrilled,” Discenza said of his return. “For five years from 2007 to 2012 we accomplished a ton. I was 25 years old when I took over and I formed a relationship with Mike Urtz while working at Cortland Country Club. He knew I had a background in coaching, though it was football at the time. He also knew I had a background in golf and he gave me an opportunity as a really young coach to take over my own program. That was the first time I applied that passion for coaching that was formed as a young football coach. We recruited hard, coached the kids hard and the program grew over those five years exponentially. I was really proud of everything we accomplished in those five years. The program was on the brink of receiving national attention. We cracked the top 25 for the first time since the program had restarted in the late 1990s.”

Discenza’s passion for coaching came from his days playing football, basketball and golf during his Homer school days.

“Part of the reason I live in this community and am raising my family here is because of the experience I had as a student-athlete at Homer,” Discenza said. “I know no small part of the reason I’ve pursued teaching and coaching is because of the teachers and coaches that I had at Homer. Gary Podsiedlik, Tom Cottrell, Jim Whidden, Rich Barnes and I could go on and on, plus teachers I had that weren’t coaches like Mrs. Stokoe and Mrs. Lenhart. They all sent me down the right road to wanting to teach and coach other kids. 20-plus years later I still lean on a lot of experiences and values that were entrenched in me at that time. Things like hard work and do things the right way. Nobody not only tells that, but walks the walk the same way and practices what he preaches than Gary Podsiedlik. The way I’ve conducted myself as a coach has been because of Gary, Tom, Jim and Rich, whether it’s my coaching football or golf. I’m eager for my son to experience the same. He will be a Trojan. He is trending that way on a football path., but it may or may not be football, golf or any sport. It’s a special place.”

Discenza graduated from Ithaca College in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in history. He earned a master’s degree in secondary education at Widener University (Pa.) in 2007.

“I started at Siena College with an undecided major and was a freshman on the football team,” Discenza recalled after graduation from Homer. “I had my heart set on Ithaca (College) and for various reasons I wound up at Siena where I had a good experience before I ultimately did transfer to IC. I wouldn’t change a thing. I was a fledgling football player on some really exceptional teams there my first year there. We went to the National Quarterfinals in 2001 and we were 11-2 that season. I got hurt that season but Mike Welch,who became an extraordinary mentor for me like Gary was, gave me the opportunity to start coaching so I spent a couple of years on Coach Welch’s staff as a student assistant in 2002 and 2003. I stuck around for a third year in 2004 where I really got the coaching bug. Coach Welch is one in a million. The values that he installed in his program came from Jim Butterfield were very much the same that Gary has installed at Homer. It was an affirmation that this is what I wanted to do.”

The coaching bug saw a couple stops. First was Widener University where Discenza coached the safeties while working on his Master’s Degree then a year back at Ithaca College where he coached the outside linebackers. Things changed again over that summer of 2006.

“Mike Urtz was the assistant athletic director at the time at Cortland,” Discenza said. “At my summer job, I was scrubbing clubs and sweeping the porch at the (Cortland) Country Club. He knew my background and offered me the opportunity to take over the golf program in 2007. To have the opportunity to come home, work in college athletics, and take over my own program was really too good to be true. It was a great experience for five years.”

In the 2009-10 season, Discenza led the Red Dragons to their first-ever national ranking since the program re-started in the late 1990s. Cortland was ranked 24th in the final Golf World/National Golf Coaches Association (NGCA) Division III national poll. He was also elected to the PGA Membership in 2012, and in 2013, he earned advanced certification in Teaching and Coaching through the PGA of America.

“I had some other curiosities professionally that I wanted to investigate and Joe Tesori, Jr.) had just come on in the spring of 2012 in his own career transition and wanted to try coaching. He did a great job that spring and I knew Joe well in advance of that and his dad as well. I felt comfortable in turning that over to him. I knew he would be a great caretaker and take the next steps with the program which he has done. So we are kind of changing places again in some crazy circumstances. I couldn’t be happier because the program really means a lot to me. Those five years before were as professionally satisfying as anything I have done. I’m eager to keep it going for a real long time.

“I became a member of the PGA (Professional Golfers Association) of America. It’s an organization that means a lot to all of us in the golf industry in terms of growing the game and empowering the golf professionals. I wanted to investigate the golf business. I worked as a kid at Cortland Country Club where I observed Tony Saraceno and Eric Manning running the operation. they were two great golfers in their own right. The conversations, as a third party, listening to them talk about playing competitive golf were as much of an education as any golf coach. After becoming a member of PGA America I worked at Bellevue Country Club for three seasons under Cortland native Steve Aloi. During that entire time, I desperately missed the player-coach relationship. I did everything I could do to get back into teaching and coaching.”

The run at Bellevue was short and it was back to Cortland High School for a couple of years in a support role and helping coach football. Then Mike Urtz picked up the phone again and asked Discenza to come back to Cortland as the equipment room supervisor.

“It was a role I never expected, he said. “I was a little resistant to it as I was investigating an opportunity at Ithaca. Ultimately, I decided to come back to (SUNY) Cortland because Mike was going to offer me an opportunity to get back in coaching at some capacity. It was getting back into college football after a couple of seasons at the high school. The defensive coordinator at the time was a dear friend Tunde Agboke. The two of us struck up a conversation and I already had a relationship with Coach Mac (Dan MacNeill). I became the cornerbacks coach and co-special teams coordinator in 2016. When Agboke moved on to UCLA, I got a chance to become defensive coordinator. It has been a dream come true to be the defensive coordinator at your hometown school the past three seasons. I will forever cherish those memories. I am also thrilled about this next chapter with the golf program.”

Discenza and his wife, Lara – a former softball pitcher at Cortland – reside in Homer with their son, John (4 years old). The couple have been married for eight years.

“I remember my time growing up in the Homer community and I just want that for my family and make them part of that. Professionally, I just want to make our golf team the best in the nation. I know it sounds grantious, but if you look at all 25 sports at SUNY Cortland that is the standard. There are championship banners hanging all over the place. I know I took it for granted as a kid how unique Cortland was on a national scale. One of the joys of going to work every day is the banter between the coaches. You look around the table at one of our staff meetings and it is pretty remarkable. From men and women who have been there for a long time and see everything they have accomplished like a Joe Brown or a Julie Lenhart who just retired.

“Of all the people I have mentioned as mentors, she might be the greatest,” he continued. “When I started at Cortland, I shared an office with Julie. They stuck the golf coach in the office with one of the most decorated coaches. She not only introduced me to my wife, but watching and talking with her has been one of the most fortunate things that has ever happened to me. It was all because that’s where there was some office space available. It is such a unique place in the national scene and our golf program is emerging.”

With three straight conference championships and the NWGC (Northeast Women’s Golf Conference) now having a bid attached to the NCAA Tournament next year, Discenza has high hopes for his golfer, including standout Danielle Bambola.

“If we keep doing the right things, we could be right there,” Discenza said. “This program has been very successful at the regional level and can get a chance to compete on the national level. That is my goal. Make this program has big as it can be.”

“Danielle Bambola is one in a million,” he added. “Her golf is what garners all the attention and I gotten to know her over the last couple of years.

She a PE (physical education) major so she is around the building a lot. I wasn’t with the program, but I got to know her a bit. As we have been transitioning the program the past few months I’ve gotten to know her better. Danielle is a first class person. From first class teammate to first class student, she is a super player. She works extremely hard. She understands what needs to be done to improve. It all equates to her being good in tournament golf. The silver lining in her becoming the top golfer in program history was winning four out of five tournaments in the fall and finishing second in that one she didn’t win. Danielle was a Second Team All-American and the SUNY Cortland C-Club Female Senior Athlete of the Year. By all indicators, she was about to advance to the NCAA Tournament to compete for a national championship before having the rug pulled out from under her. and her teammates. With that blanket waiver the NCAA granted all spring athletes, Danielle will be back. She had planned to come back as a coach as she pursued her Master’s Degree, but now it will be as a golfer. She is thrilled about that and so are we.”

So with new goals and a joy of staying in the area, Mike Discenza is ready for these new challenges.