Karen Daffner is an old-school, no-nonsense type of teacher and coach with a big heart.
She’s a firm believer in tough love, and she’s dished out her own brand of disciplined guidance and instruction in numerous sports for the Schenectady City School District for more than three decades.
Even in “semi-retirement”— technically, she retired from her physical education duties in June 2017 — and while dealing with a serious illness, Daffner still coaches the Schenectady High School girls’ bowling team, but does so remotely. While assistant coach Sharon Sager runs the team on site, Daffner still calls in the scores, keeps all the stats and handles the administration duties from home.
Despite her illness — which Daffner declined to disclose, besides to confirm that it’s not related to COVID-19 — Daffner remains upbeat and enthusiastic, and recently discussed her long, successful career in scholastic athletics with The Daily Gazette.
Last February, Daffner helped guide the Patriots to the first Section II title for a Schenectady girls’ team in 16 years when they won the Class A bowling title. In 31 academic years and at a variety of competition levels, the Niskayuna High School graduate has coached volleyball for 31 seasons, softball for 21, basketball for 16 and bowling for 14
“I took my job seriously as a teacher and as a coach. That’s what school teachers are for,” Daffner said.
While Daffner is soft-hearted when it comes to her large family and her pet dogs over the years, she says her coaching philosophy was never close to being democratic.
“I was tough. It’s always been my way or the highway,” Daffner said. “Believe me; my students would always call me Miss Daffner back in the day. I would tell them, ‘This is my gym; if this was England, I’d be the queen.’ Some of them would understand my sarcasm, but they all knew what kind of coach I was.
“I would make them run 25 laps after practice. I would tell them that they need to strive for excellence and go above and beyond. I told them they should put their right foot forward when representing Schenectady. I would even take uniforms away from people when they didn’t do the job. I hated doing it, but I had to. I was definitely a tough coach.”
Schenectady athletic director Steve Boynton has known Daffner for more than 30 years and appreciates her pursuit of excellence.
“She’s always been a hard-working coach,” Boynton said. “She coached volleyball for me for a long time, and she also coached softball and lately bowling. I would say she’s very demanding, but caring. She has a very good heart.”
Daffner grew up at a time when athletic opportunities for young girls were limited in school.
“When I was a freshman at Niskayuna, Title IX hadn’t hit yet. We could only do intramurals,” Daffner recalled. “As a sophomore, we were finally able to join a team. They started having volleyball and soccer, field hockey and basketball. They didn’t have a softball program originally.”
After graduating from Niskayuna, Daffner studied physical education at Norwich University. Even at the college level, women athletes were treated differently, especially at a military-style higher academic school almost entirely filled with male students.
“We lived on the Vermont College campus as freshmen, and we fought tooth and nail to have a place to live on the Norwich campus,” Daffner explained. “It was a military college, and they weren’t very accommodating to women. They finally moved us over to campus when we were sophomores.
“But I did like some of the things about being around a military institution. They would line up for lunch and dinner, and work on their drill routines. But I would say that some of the things they did there were not for female eyes.”
From Norwich, Daffner went to Indiana University to study sports medicine.
“I did my master’s in athletic training, but it was too hard to keep that going,” Daffner said. “I just couldn’t do it any more after a while. I mean, I was certified as a trainer nationally at one point, but you had to keep working on your certification every year. Eventually, one of our trainers at school said they weren’t too worried about me, because I knew what to do in an emergency. I could tape the kids, and I could evaluate injuries. If a player couldn’t do certain things, they weren’t going back in the game as far as I was concerned.”
Daffner wanted to find a teaching and coaching position close to home, because she was very devoted to her family. But it didn’t work out that way originally.
She had plenty of knowledge, but not that much experience.
“I would say my overall knowledge of sports helped me with everything that happened after that,” Daffner said.
“I bowled in high school so I knew a little about bowling. I started out looking at the pins when I bowled and [former Schenectady baseball coach] Bill Masucci actually taught me a few things. But I was never too proud to learn something from anyone who knew more than I did. I was good at organizing, keeping stats, reporting stuff and giving accolades when they were deserved.”
Daffner applied for a job at her high school alma mater, but it didn’t work out. She eventually moved to Texas City, Texas to find a job in 1981.
“Texas needed an influx of physical education teachers at the time, so I went,” Daffner said.
But family obligations brought her back home to Schenectady.
“My sister got married, and my mom had a stroke. Family is family, and we are very close-knit,” she said. “I came back home and tried to get a job in Schenectady.”
Daffner originally worked part-time and with the help of Ken Johnson, who knew her parents, got an elementary school job in 1986. That began a long career as both a physical education teacher and coach, mostly for several middle schools in the district.
“Volleyball and softball were my first loves, but I still love basketball,” Daffner said. “My coaching in basketball in the early days was a little bit different. We had a 2-by-4 with an arrow on it to remind the kids which way they were supposed to go on the court, and I had seven managers on the team. Each manager had a different job. I always had the smartest kid keep the stats. We didn’t have much talent, and many games were 2-0 at halftime. I had 13 players on the team, and I got all of them in the game in the first half. In the second half, I could concentrate on how to win.”
Daffner’s teams didn’t always have the best equipment or venues on which to play.
“I remember when I first started coaching softball. Sometimes, we didn’t have any backstop on our field. Another time, I remember fixing the backstop with dental floss and the kids would always laugh at me. But I didn’t care. I always came prepared with scissors and other tools in my pockets.”
When Daffner’s teams had pitching, like they did for Mont Pleasant in 1987, they excelled.
“We kicked some butt that year, and I was the varsity coach,” she recalled. “We ended up going to sectionals and were the Class B runner-up. But the following year, the Linton and Mont Pleasant programs merged, and I went back to coaching the JV.”
Although she loved coaching softball, Daffner eventually decided she wanted to pick up golf. That meant no more coaching a spring sport. She decided to coach the girls’ bowling team.
“I gave up softball and picked up bowling in the 2006-07 season,” Daffner said. “I knew something about bowling. Not as much as Sharon Sager, but I know the basics. I had 13 girls on the team once, and some of the parents didn’t agree, but I’d still go into the match with the top six.”
Sager, a Schenectady Bowling Association Hall of Famer and member of the board of directors, handles much of the instruction for the Schenectady team.
“Karen does all the paperwork for the team,” Sager said. “She is definitely a disciplinarian. She’s tough with those kids, but it’s a good toughness. The kids don’t understand everything when they are this young, but Karen’s philosophy is tough love. All of her former kids respect her, and they still talk to her on Facebook. She cares about her kids, and if they ever need anything, she’s right there for them.
“She’s very empathetic,” Sager continued. “She enforces the rules, but she knows when to show empathy and when to show guidance. She’s a pistol. I know she’s given a large portion of her life to the youth in Schenectady. She’s a great mentor and role model for them all. We work great together.”
Daffner has coached many outstanding student-athletes, many of whom have gone on to become teachers and coaches themselves, like Lauren May Piotrowski, the former Patriot and SUNY Schenectady star who was named the NAIA Women’s Bowler of the Year last season for the University of Pikeville (Kentucky). Piotrowski is now back as an assistant coach for the Bears.
“She helped me see how great I could be, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without her,” Piotrowski said.
“Coach Daffner was so passionate about what she did. She loved athletics and it always showed. She was always willing to help someone out. She has such a big heart and an amazing personality. She’s funny and sarcastic, and she loved giving people a hard time. She was the best coach, and I’ll always be thankful for her.”
If you want to get a complete picture of the type of person Daffner is, consider that she’s dedicated countless hours taking care of her 93-year-old father since her mother passed away a couple years ago.
She’s also a huge animal lover, especially dogs. She’s taken home rescue dogs for more than 25 years and is a strong supporter of the American Protective Foundation.
Despite her “toughness” as a coach, Daffner was known to help people in need, whether they are family, friends or students. Now, all of her love and caring is being returned.
“I can’t tell you how great the support has been from my colleagues, the parents, my former athletes and my current athletes,” Daffner said. “Everybody I’ve touched in the last 31 years is now there for me. It’s like one big circle.”
Recently, those loved ones traveled to Schenectady from all across the region to show their appreciation for their longtime coach and friend with a huge car parade outside her home. They also sold T-shirts with “Daffner Strong” on them. Proceeds will go to that American Protective Foundation.
“I have no regrets on my teaching career, my life, or what I’ve done for people,” she said. “Everybody says that when you close your eyes for the final time, there’s a place for you in heaven. I believe that.”
Reach Bob Weiner at [email protected].