Chuck Carafano isn’t sure how many games the Schalmont football team won during his high school days, but he’s certain it wasn’t many.
“When I went to school in the 1960s, no one showed up,” the lifelong Rotterdam resident said. “We were in the Suburban Council back then playing with bigger schools, and it wasn’t for lack of trying. We just didn’t have the bodies.”
These days, a spot on the Schalmont team is coveted, and a Sabres’ game is an event.
“Look at the last six, seven, eight years, and everyone is going,” Carafano said. “I’ve got neighbors who go to the games, and they don’t even have kids. The whole area has perked up because of them.”
Averaging over 10 wins a year will do that to a community. That’s something the Sabres accomplished in the last seven years under Rotterdam natives Mike DiCocco and then Joe Whipple, with a bunch of those successful showings in sectional and state tournament play.
“We represent what Rotterdam is all about. It’s a blue collar town,” said Whipple, the Sabres’ head coach since 2009. “We work hard and make no excuses, and I think people recognize and respect that.”
Friday night games have become a major happening at the high school, which, due to waning student participation, didn’t field a team from 1979-85 in what varsity assistant Pete Rings called the “Dark Years.” In subsequent years the Sabres put together just three winning campaigns (1989, 1991, 1998) leading up to their monster run that DiCocco said laid the groundwork for in 2007.
“Part of it was we had a good crop of kids,” said DiCocco, who graduated from Schalmont in 1993. “Part of it was an increase in offseason training individually and as a team. Part of it was the team bonding concepts that we introduced.
“Ask any championship team, and it’s not all skill and talent. It’s bonding.”
DiCocco’s 2007 team went 3-6, and his 2008 edition went 7-2. Since he moved to defensive coordinator in order to spend more time with his family and Whipple took over the top spot in 2009, the Sabres have forged a glossy 65-9 mark with five Super Bowl wins and five regional championships.
Schalmont football is now the talk of the town.
“We do have people walk in here and talk about football,” said Chris Hall, who works the 2 to 10 p.m. shift at the Route 7 Cumberland Farms that’s about two miles away from the high school. “They do seem genuinely excited to go watch them play.”
The Schalmont faithful have embraced what it now considered a model varsity program that stresses accountability, sportsmanship and citizenship, and wins on the field and off. The Sabres have earned scholar-athlete status every year throughout the current regime.
“You have two guys who grew up in Rotterdam,” said Whipple, who graduated from Mohonasen in 1992. “Both of our parents worked hard. That’s ingrained in us. We work hard. We don’t know any other way to do things.”
The word “We” is big in Schalmont football.
“We listen to our players,” said Whipple, a Schalmont High School special education teacher. “We want their input. We want to implement what they want so they’ll feel invested in the program.
“Every year we do a preseason evaluation and ask the kids ‘How do you want to do this and that. How do you want to be coached?’ We use it to get to know the kids. It’s a different age in coaching. Kids’ dynamics are different and we can’t change that. We can change the way we coach.”
The players, in turn, buy in.
“Communication is the key,” said Schalmont junior running back and linebacker Cameron Brooks. “The players and the coaches, we talk about things.”
And Rotterdam folks are talking about their Sabres, who have forged their impressive record with an exciting brand of football that features a no-huddle shotgun spread offense and a swarm-to-the-ball defense. Packaging the two with great effect, Schalmont reached state Class B title games in 2010, 2013 and last year. (They lost all three.)
“They give the community a reason to come together,” Hall said. “It’s a bond.”
Carafano, whose only season of football ended early with an injury, likes what he’s seeing from the new breed.
“This is amazing to me,” said Carafano, who played baseball, basketball and was on the bowling team at Schalmont before his graduation in 1964. “I feel great about it, and I’m sure the school and the people in the area do, too. I’m not sure how they coach or teach it, but they’re doing something right.”
LAYING THE FOUNDATION
Whipple made what he considered the right move in 2012 by backing the formation of the Capital District Youth Football League, which caters to players of all skill levels in grades three through six, and has no weight restrictions such as in Pop Warner leagues.
Eight area school districts have direct ties to the league, which started with Schalmont, Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake and Colonie. Varsity players from the schools often work with the youths and provide great inspiration, while laying the foundation for future Sabres teams.
“I grew up playing Pop Warner,” said Whipple, whose son, Rocco, competes in the league. “I coached Pop Warner, and so did my dad. I looked at it as a need for the Rotterdam community. We need to groom them if we want to continue our winning ways.”
The youths run the same offense, though toned down, as the Schalmont varsity. The high school’s modified and junior varsity teams do, too.
“We’ve created an environment to be successful. The door is open to that,” Whipple said. “It’s up to the guys to do something with it.”
Schalmont kicks off its season Friday at Broadalbin-Perth, then begins defense of its Class B Reinfurt Division title the Friday after at home against Albany Academy. Schalmont has won seven consecutive division championships, forging a 36-0 record in doing so.
Expect a big crowd. Schalmont football is a big thing.
“It was friends and family that would come to the games when I played,” DiCocco said. “Now we’re getting people from all over the place, and with social media, we have people all over the country keeping up with the scores.
“I have my high school group that I keep in touch with, and they get upset if they don’t get their scores.”
Reach Gazette sportswriter Jim Schiltz at 395-3143, [email protected] or @jim_schiltz on Twitter.
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Categories: High School Sports, Sports