Amsterdam’s Finest: The best of Rugged Rams football

Ranking the best teams since the "Rugged Rams" were born in 1967
Amsterdam celebrates its 1995 NYS Class B football championship at the Carrier Dome.
Amsterdam celebrates its 1995 NYS Class B football championship at the Carrier Dome.

AMSTERDAM — Ask 10 different people around Amsterdam to tell you which Amsterdam High School football team is the greatest ever, and there’s a decent chance you’ll get 10 different answers — and a lot of arguments.

Heck, ask some of the guys who played for and coached those teams, and even they can’t sort it out.

“I don’t go out on a limb to compare teams,” said Frank Derrico, who coached the Rugged Rams from 1979 to 1995. “I’ve always said that you could throw them all in a pit and they would fight to the death to come out of that pit — and I’m not going to be placing any money on who comes out of that pit.”

“I’ve always thought Frank’s answer was the best,” said Pat Liverio, who succeeded Derrico from 1996 through 2011.

Since The Recorder’s sports editor Art Hoefs first dubbed them as the Rugged Rams in 1967, Amsterdam has forged a reputation as one of the most consistently excellent football programs in Section II, constantly contending for league, area and state titles.

Since, let’s face it, there’s plenty of time right now to look back into the annals of history, The Recorder is taking its turn to join the debate of which team was the best, and has assembled its list of the 10 greatest Amsterdam football teams of the Rugged Rams era.

What makes a truly special Amsterdam team? For Derrico, it’s a mixture of five factors: Camaraderie, unselfishness, intelligence, talent and will to win. These 10 teams — and many more in Amsterdam’s storied history — possess those qualities in spades, and are ranked from No. 10 to No. 1.

No. 10: 2015

Record: 7-4, Section II Class A champions

Legacy: The team that authored one of the most stunning in-season turnarounds in Section II history. The Rams started this season 0-3, including a 47-0 shellacking at the hands of Cazenovia in the Carrier Dome to start the year, then hit an unbelievable hot streak once they reached the midpoint of the regular season. Led by star running back Bryan Stanavich, who wrapped up his career as the school’s all-time rushing leader, Amsterdam blew out an undefeated Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake team in the Section II Class A semifinals before winning 49-35 against Troy — which had handed the Rams one of their losses from their 0-3 start — for the program’s first area title in 10 years. It was a year defined by midseason adjustments, including a sizable trimming of the roster during the year and a pair of key position moves involving Dale Stanavich, whose switch from cornerback and wide receiver to free safety and fullback helped unlock the team’s potential on both sides of the ball.

Quotable: “Truthfully, they started practicing harder. … They didn’t stop fighting. It was a fun group to coach. The way they practiced was great. At the end of the year, the last seven weeks, it was just fun to be around.” — Doug Edick, head coach, 2012-2019

No. 9: 1967

Record: 6-2

Legacy: Amsterdam’s original “Rugged Rams” earned the nickname with one of the most fearsome defensive units the area has ever seen. Coach Gene White’s team powered to the program’s best record since 1936, allowing just 42 points over the course of the entire season and posting shutout wins over Johnstown, Albany and Phillip Schuyler. 

Actually, the defense’s true resume is even better than that, as opponents scored just three touchdowns from scrimmage against Amsterdam all season — two passing, one rushing — with the other three scores coming from a fumble return and two kickoff returns. Led by middle linebackers Cliff Schwenke and Rick Riccio, the team earned the “Rugged Rams” moniker from Recorder sports editor Art Hoefs, and it’s stuck ever since. The only two losses came in a pair of heartbreakers, a 6-0 setback against Linton and a 14-13 loss to an undefeated Mont Pleasant team, which beat Amsterdam without an offensive touchdown and held on thanks to a missed extra point by the Rams. 

Quotable: “Gene White was really instrumental in that. He came in, I think, two years before that season and he started turning the program around. That was the start. Amsterdam always had the talent, but for some reason couldn’t put it together. He was able to get the ball rolling.” — Gary Cudmore, defensive back, 1967 Rams

No. 8: 1979 

Record: 8-2, Big 10 champions, Section II Class A runners-up

Legacy: Derrico’s first season at the helm began the Rams’ run as perennial Section II championship contenders. After Amsterdam lost its opening game to Bishop Maginn, the team ran off eight consecutive wins to reach the Section II Class A Super Bowl for the first time. The season ended with a 12-7 Super Bowl loss to Shenendehowa, which would become a familiar theme for Amsterdam over the years. Amsterdam reached area finals in 1979, 1980, 1981 and 1984, coming up short on all four occasions — with three of those losses coming to Shenendehowa — before the breakthrough in 1986.

Quotable: “They lost their first game 24-0 to Bishop Maginn. Besides working hard, they made a resolve to improve — individually and collectively. They wound up winning eight straight games.” — Derrico

No. 7: 1974

Record: 8-1, Class A League champions

Legacy: From 1970 through 1974, Amsterdam never lost more than two games in a season and won four Class A League championships in a five-year stretch. The 1974 squad, coached by Brian Mee, capped off that run with an 8-1 campaign led by 1,000-yard rusher Mark DiCaprio. Amsterdam ran off a perfect 4-0 mark against Class A League foes Linton, Mont Pleasant, Albany and Troy while playing a tough non-league schedule, with the only loss coming to an out-of-section opponent in Rome Free Academy.

Quotable: “That team lost one game to Rome Free Academy, on our field, and it was a close team. That was a great football team.” — Derrico

No. 6: 1984

Record: 8-2, Big 10 co-champions, Section II Class A runner-up

Legacy: Two of Amsterdam’s greatest teams ever suffered heartbreaking Class A Super Bowl losses. One came in 1998, a 36-35 overtime loss to Queensbury in one of the greatest Section II football games of all time. The other was 14 years before, when Derrico took a third shot against Shenendehowa in 1984, only for Amsterdam to come out on the wrong end of a 17-14 epic in double-overtime. Standout running back James Valikonis scored both touchdowns for Amsterdam in that 1984 Super Bowl, but Derrico shoulders the blame for that loss on “the worst offensive call I made in football” that threw the Rams for a loss while they were driving for a second score in regulation. Instead, Shenendehowa triumphed on a field goal in the second overtime and Amsterdam had to wait two more years to win its first Section II championship.

Quotable: “We lost that [Super Bowl] in double-overtime, and I blame myself for that, because those kids were in a good position to win that game.” — Derrico

No. 5: 2001

Record: 11-1, Section II Class A champions

Legacy: If Justice Smith is the greatest skill player in Amsterdam history, then Josh Beekman is certainly the program’s greatest lineman. The dominant force in the trenches was an All-American in his senior season with the Rams, leading the way in a season that saw Amsterdam kick off its string of five straight Class A area championships.

The season also features one of the great what-if scenarios in Amsterdam football history, as star tailback Darien Ward — who rushed for more than 1,500 yards as a junior in 2000 — had his season ended by an ankle injury in Week 2. The Rams ended up leaning on fullback Mike Altieri and the committee of Topher Davey, Matt Samko and Tim Dado to lead a powerhouse rushing attack. Amsterdam rolled to a 28-7 Super Bowl win over La Salle Institute and won a regional game against Massena before the undefeated run came to an end against Horace Greeley in the state semifinals — a loss Liverio laments to this day as being a product of the Rams having trouble with the turf at Dietz Stadium because they didn’t have the proper footwear.

Quotable: “We didn’t have good turf shoes. Because of that field [at Dietz Stadium] and that misty, foggy type of weather, our kids were slipping and sliding all over. When I saw Josh [Beekman] take on a 1-on-1 block and be sliding like he was on skates 10 yards back, I knew there was a problem with the shoes. . . . They were strong up front, they got along well together. They were just a dominant type of team.” — Liverio

No. 4: 1995

Record: 11-2, NYS Class B champions

Legacy: Derrico’s final season at Amsterdam produced the first Section II team to capture a state football championship. The Rams lost to Christian Brothers Academy and Bishop Maginn during the regular season and needed a win against Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake late in the regular season to secure a Class B playoff berth.

Amsterdam took down a previously unbeaten Albany Academy team in the Class B Super Bowl, conquered a four-hour bus ride to beat Peru in the first round of the state playoffs, overcame a slow start to beat Nyack in the state semifinals and capped off their magical run with an 11-8 win over Lake Shore in the championship game at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, lifted to glory by Alvaro Montes’ go-ahead field goal in the final minute. Stars included quarterback Chris Covell, running back Lester Rivera, offensive tackle Jamar Ward and defensive tackle Rich Altieri.

Quotable: “They were the first team from our area to win the New York State football championship, and I always thought their road was one of the toughest paths I’ve ever seen accomplished.” — Derrico

No. 3: 2005

Record: 11-2, NYS Class A champions

Legacy: Amsterdam’s run of five straight Section II Class A titles — and six area crowns in seven years — finally culminated in a state championship. After years of being denied in the state semifinals at Kingston’s Dietz Stadium, the Rugged Rams finally got over the hump in 2005. Led by star quarterback T.J. Czeski, receiver Vinnie Nicosia, running back Tom McDermott and a typically ferocious Amsterdam defense, the Rams rebounded from two midseason losses and rolled to a 42-14 win over Averill Park in the Class A Super Bowl. In the state playoffs, Amsterdam rolled over Indian River before finally ending the program’s Dietz Stadium hex with a 20-10 semifinal win over Harrison. That set the stage for a resounding 35-14 win over Geneva at the Carrier Dome for the program’s second state title.

Quotable: “They weren’t afraid to lose. I had a number of teams that, as we went down into the state playoffs and were making their run, they were a little nervous. They weren’t afraid to lose. They were going to go out and get after it, and whatever happened, happened. I think the fact that they had experienced a couple losses during the regular season also helped. That team had lost a few, they knew what it felt like. They didn’t want to feel that again.” — Liverio

No. 2: 1991

Record: 11-0, Section II Class A champions

Legacy: In terms of pure talent, few teams could match the ‘91 Rams. The team featured both the best player — superstar tailback Justice Smith — and best athlete — do-it-all quarterback Brian Bonanno — that Derrico said he’s ever coached. With Smith in his senior season on his way to wrapping up a career that ended with a then-Section II career record of 4,124 rushing yards, Amsterdam powered to a Metroland Conference Division II title and claimed the Section II Class A title with a 35-20 Super Bowl win over Saratoga Springs. The full state playoffs weren’t instituted for another two years, but the ‘91 Rugged Rams finished their undefeated season in style with a 33-19 regional playoff victory over Roosevelt.

Quotable: “Nothing deterred them. They were focused from Day 1 on going all the way. Besides being overall talented, they had the best player I ever coached in Justice Smith and the best athlete I ever coached in Brian Bonanno.” — Derrico

No. 1: 1986

Record: 10-0, Section II Class A champions

Legacy: Quite simply, the standard-bearers for hard-nosed, high-intensity Amsterdam football. Led by a group of seniors who’d gone undefeated as a freshman team three years earlier, the 1986 Rugged Rams steamrolled their opposition, outscoring opponents by a combined total of 296-48. Only one team — Monroe-Woodbury of Section IX — stayed within single digits of a Rugged Rams team led by the backfield duo of Kevin Billington and Russ Dickson, defensive star Alex Gonzalez and a determined leadership group of captains Ray Moran, Dave Mendez, Juan Ly and Darren Bergh. Amsterdam had lost in the Section II Super Bowl four times in the previous seven years and took on another a fellow undefeated team — Suburban Council champion Saratoga Springs — for the Class A title. This time around, it wasn’t even close. The Rams blew out the Blue Streak, 35-0, outgaining their opponents 428-40 to finally hoist the area title.

Quotable: “They were never deterred in their quest to be not just the best team in the Big 10, but the best in Section II. They played an undefeated Saratoga team in the Super Bowl, and they beat them 35-0. . . . I probably continue to have the most contact with those kids.” — Derrico

Honorable mention

1970 (6-1-1, Class A League champions), 1971 (6-1-1, Class A League champions), 1998 (9-1, Section II Class A runners-up), 1999 (11-1, Section II Class A champions), 2002 (10-2, Section II Class A champions), 2003 (9-3, Section II Class A champions), 2004 (10-2, Section II Class A champions), 2011 (9-1, Section II Class A runners-up).

Reach Adam Shinder at [email protected] or @Adam_Shinder on Twitter.

Categories: -Sports-, High School Sports

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