NISKAYUNA — The fabulous drive Niskayuna has put together in reaching the quarterfinal round of the state football tournament for the first time didn’t start earlier this season when the Silver Warriors won their first of eight straight games.
You’ve got to go back even further to find the impetus of it all, to the tail end of the 2021 season, when Niskayuna let an opportunity to make the Section II playoffs slip away with a loss to Queensbury.
“They remember that,” Niskayuna coach Brian Grastorf said earlier this week as his team prepared for Friday’s 7 p.m. Class A game against Canandaigua Academy at Shenendehowa.
“After we didn’t make it to the playoffs last season, I told everybody this year was going to be different,” Niskayuna senior offensive guard Ame Bender said. “I told my boys. I told the coaches. ‘I promise you, we’ll win.’”
The Silver Warriors (9-2) have won more than ever before with their school-record nine victories, the last being a 35-6 triumph over Averill Park in the Section II Class A championship game a few days ago. They also won six games in 2021, just not the one that mattered most when Queensbury prevailed 27-7 and left them in third place in the Grasso Division.
“I think last year definitely helped a lot as far as pushing us forward,” Bender said.
“After last year, a bunch of guys stepped up,” Niskayuna senior center Owen Rutnik said. “In the past there would be a few guys in the weight room and a few good players, but not a whole team like this. All offseason our coaches inspired us. We had 40, 50 guys in the weight room at 7:30 a.m.”
Those coaches used a season-ending 29-28 non-division win over Amsterdam as additional offseason motivation, as a reminder of what they were capable of doing.
“Each year it was almost,” said Bender, referring to last year and the abbreviated spring 2021 COVID campaign when Niskayuna also missed the playoffs with a late defeat against Queensbury. “Some guys have been here for two years, three years, and we just wanted it more and more each year.”
Niskayuna opened this season with a 21-12 non-league win over Washingtonville, and setbacks followed against Saratoga Springs 21-7 in a non-classification game and to La Salle 25-7 in a non-division game. Niskayuna’s win streak began afterward with a non-division 49-7 victory over — of all teams — Queensbury.
“We believed we were good. We just had to put it all together,” Grastorf said. “A lot of guys were getting game experience early in the season.”
That group included several players who had helped Niskayuna’s 2021 junior varsity team post a 6-1 record including quarterback Ethan Gilson, tailback Isaiah Linyear and linebackers Garrett Gillooley and Chase Nappi to name a few.
“We won our first game and lost the next two. We got humbled,” Gillooley said. “After starting out 1-2 we got really focused.”
“After we lost to La Salle our backs were to the wall, and we had to make a change,” Rutnik said. “It started with practice. We had to grow from Monday to Thursday.”
That consistent growth is something the Silver Warriors have often credited for their win streak that has been highlighted by big performances against Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, La Salle and Averill Park in recent weeks.
“We’ve all matured as the season has gone on,” Gilson said. “I know in my first game I was so nervous. Now I’m just out there playing football and having fun.”
The Silver Warriors secured the Grasso Division title when they edged Burnt Hills 9-6 on a last-second field goal by senior Cooper Harvey, and followed up with a 28-0 Section II semifinal win against the La Salle team that had left them at 1-2.
“That’s what we talk about here,” Bender said. “Getting better a little bit every day. A little bit adds up to a lot.”
Niskayuna did a lot of good things in its first Super Bowl win, including touchdowns on its first four drives, and shutout defense after Averill Park scored on its initial possession.
“Last year we lost to Averill Park 35-0 on their homecoming. We’ve come full circle,” Rutnik said. “They punched us and we punched back a lot of times.“
Gilson threw touchdown passes to seniors Dahvion Wimberly and DeAngelo McGlothlan in Niskayuna’s Super Bowl win over Averill Park, and Linyear, McGlothlan and freshman Cameron Grasso had TD runs.
“We’re going on to the regionals, and Niskayuna has never done that,” Gilson said. “I’m very happy that I’ve been able to help the seniors reach this goal. They’ve put so much effort into it.”
“We have a constant conversation,” Linyear said. “Let’s do it for the seniors.”
Niskayuna’s semifinal win over La Salle marked the team’s first in tournament play since 1996 when it beat Amsterdam before a Class A Super Bowl loss to Troy. Niskayuna’ last playoff win before the La Salle game was back in 2010 in a Class AA quarterfinal against Saratoga.
“We had opportunities to win games, and we took advantage of those opportunities and got the white [Section II champion] patch,” Gillooley said, before adding. “We won the Super Bowl, but we’re not satisfied. The job’s not finished.”
Canandaigua (9-2) defeated East/World of Inquiry (10-1) in the Section V A2 championship game 28-6. Canandaigua has won four straight Section V titles and 12 in all.
“It’s the elite eight. We’re going in with confidence, but we know they’re good,” Rutnik said of the Braves, who got four touchdowns from Tysheed Crockton in the Section V final. “It’s win or go home, so we’re going to give it 100%.”