Allentown hires in-house to replace best football coach in school history


In nine years as Allentown High School’s football coach, Jay Graber built quite a reputation.

The young coach transformed the Redbirds from a dormant program into a perennial NJSIAA contender.

In 2016, he guided Allentown to the Central Jersey, Group 4 state sectional playoff championship with a 41-7 victory over Brick Township High School in the title game.

Over the course of his turnaround job, Graber earned the label that media outlets frequently used to describe him: one of the best young coaches in New Jersey.

Naturally, he also parlayed this reputation into a new football coaching job at Matawan Regional High School, which Graber accepted in February.

Allentown history teacher Andrew Lachenmayer watched Graber’s rise firsthand. Lachenmayer was the boss’s line coach for eight of his nine seasons guiding the Redbirds.

Now he will try to prove that Graber built a program that can withstand the leader’s exit. The Upper Freehold Regional School District’s Board of Education approved Lachenmayer’s hiring as the Allentown head football coach at its March 13 meeting.

“It was a fairly smooth and quick process,” Lachenmayer said. “They wanted someone familiar and I’m happy to be taking over.”

The 31-year old is inheriting a program that went 61-34 in the past nine seasons. His 2019 squad will also bring back third-year starting quarterback Dan Merkel, playmaking wide receiver Chris McCrea and its entire starting offensive line.

But the Redbirds only finished 4-5 in 2018, their first losing campaign since 2009. They also fell in the first round of the Central Jersey, Group 3 state sectional playoffs, dropping a 30-13 game to Red Bank Regional High School.

It was a bit of a down year by Allentown’s new high standard. To restore the program to its state sectional contender status, Lachenmayer needs to improve the Redbirds’ defense.

Allentown allowed 26 or more points in all five of its losses last fall. It also lost 10 senior starters from that defense.

Graber was an offensive minded coach, and he instituted an aggressive, no huddle offense, which Lachenmayer plans on continuing. But the new coach is viewing the defense as more of a blank slate. He actually wants it to play more aggressively, like the offense.

“I’m looking for a defensive coordinator to buy into that vision,” Lachenmayer said. “We’re looking to replicate what we do on offense on defense.”

If Lachenmayer can establish a solid defense, the Redbirds may be really good in 2019.

“We have a bright future,” the coach said. “There are definitely enough skill players to have a lot of success.”

The new coach knows how to achieve success, too. He helped Graber do it on the football field, and he also did it as the head coach of Allentown’s spring track and field team.

In the spring of 2017, the Allentown girls’ track and field squad won the Central Jersey, Group 3 sectional championship, the school’s first state sectional title in girls’ track.

“He knows what it takes to be a head coach,” Graber said. 

Lachenmayer is not sure if he will continue as Allentown’s track and field coach after this spring season. But he is sure what his main focus will be. Football has been his favorite sport since Kindergarten, and he has always wanted to run his own program.

“It has been my dream passion project,” Lachenmayer said. “And I’m happy at Allentown because I teach there.”