As a defensive back at Ithaca College, Mike DiCocco often heard his football coach, Mike Welch, impress upon the little things.
Now that he’s a member of the coaching fraternity, DiCocco also talks about the little things, and his Schalmont team is not only listening, but responding.
“We don’t talk about wins and losses so much,” DiCocco said. “We talk about winning the down. About handling your responsibility. About moving the chains. You take care of the little things, and the bigger things will take care of themselves.”
For the Sabres, the bigger things include five victories, a first league championship in program history, a No. 1 seed for the upcoming Section II playoffs and a No. 20 state ranking heading into tonight’s Class B West Division game at Broadalbin-Perth.
All of this from a varsity program that posted a winning record just once in the previous 16 years. That was in 1998, when the Sabres went 6-3. Schalmont also went 6-3 in 1991 when DiCocco was a junior standout at the high school.
Schalmont set a school record with seven wins (7-1) in 1964.
“The kids have the mentality that they want to win each down. The kids are playing their hearts out, and making plays,” said DiCocco, Schalmont’s second-year coach. “They get out there and tackle, block and run. They’re hungry. They want to get the job done, and they’re having fun doing it.”
Much more than last fall, when the Sabres went 3-6, failed to win a West Division game and were left out of the playoffs for the fourth year in a row. One of those victories came against Cairo-Durham’s first-year varsity, and another came against winless Taconic Hills, in the Sabres’ final two games.
“I knew in the preseason we’d be competitive, but as a coach at Schalmont, I couldn’t say we were going to run the table because we never have,” said DiCocco, whose Sabres are 3-0 in the West after going 0-5 last year. “I told the guys, ‘If you block well and tackle well, you’ll put ourselves in position to win football games.’ ”
With a group of 26, including 15 seniors, Schalmont has defeated Hudson (36-6), Hudson Falls (30-19), Johnstown (39-0), 2007 Section II Class B champ Cobleskill-Richmondville (30-7) and Granville (38-8) since a season-opening 20-16 loss in the rain and mud at Albany Academy.
Kyle McKelvey hit Ryan Hyde with two touchdown passes last week and ran for a score, while Vince Gallo ran for his team-leading 13th touchdown and notched his sixth straight 100-plus-yard rushing game with 171. On the defensive side, only a third-quarter touchdown pass kept the Sabres from posting their second shutout in three weeks.
“It’s been a combination of hard work and a good mix of athleticism and attitude,”
DiCocco said. “All of those things have factored into our good start.”
People in Rotterdam have taken notice.
“There’s a buzz around town and in the school. You can hear it and feel it,” said DiCocco, who teaches eighth-grade social studies at the middle school. “If we can contribute to the community and the school being happy and proud, I’d have to think we’re on the right track.”
Paving the way has been the job of center Shawn Pryba, guards Mark Waite and Brian Ellis and tackles Shawn Schellenger and Elbasan Syla. Tight end Coleman Jennes and fullback Madison DeCerce have provided key blocks, as well, in Schalmont’s improved offense.
“It’s nice to have some big kids up front,” said DiCocco, whose right side features 300-pounders in Schellenger and Waite. “And they’re not only big, they can move. There’s some athleticism there.”
Schellenger, Waite, Pryba and Jennes have anchored Schalmont’s defensive line in front of a linebacking unit led by Gallo, Mark Belles and Trevor Gaughan, and a secondary trio of McKelvey, Dan Bonitatibus and Joe Palumbo.
“Last year, they were in position to make tackles. This year, when a big, fast running back comes their way, they’re making the tackle,” said DiCocco, whose Sabres surrendered 26 points or more during a difficult five-game stretch in 2007. “The guys are more confident in their abilities and making plays. They have experience under their belts.”
Albany Academy rallied twice in its win against Schalmont, with Zay Richardson’s
46-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter putting the Cadets over the top for good.
“They made big plays when they needed to make big plays. They played well, and stopped us when the game came down to the wire,” said DiCocco. “Since that game, we’re focused on not giving up the big play. It happened against Hudson Falls a few times, but it’s been better since.”
DiCocco said he’s wary of Broadalbin-Perth (1-2, 2-4), which is seeking one of the West Division’s four playoff berths. The
Patriots lost to unbeaten Schuylerville by one point, and have dropped two other games by five and six points.
“Records don’t mean much to me. They’ve got athletes, they’ve got aggressive kids, they’ve got weapons,” DiCocco said of the Patriots, who humbled the Sabres last year, 54-20. “We’ve got to take them seriously.”
Schalmont wants to have momentum on its side when it hosts its first playoff game next weekend, and looks to end an 0-3 postseason slide. DiCocco said preparation for that game (against either Hudson or Albany Academy) will be intense.
“We need to excel in every aspect of football, not just practicing and playing hard. We need to overachieve in the weight room and with our conditioning,” he said. “We don’t want to have any complacency. That can be your worst enemy.”
pats at home
Class AA Liberty Division champion Schenectady (4-0, 6-0) will be looking to cap a perfect regular season tonight at home against Shaker (1-3, 1-5), while Shenendehowa (4-1, 4-2) hosts Ballston Spa (3-2, 4-2) in an Empire Division contest with multiple postseason implications. Empire Division champ Saratoga Springs (5-0, 5-1) entertains Guilderland (2-3, 2-4).
Tonight’s featured Class A game sends Troy (3-1, 5-1) to Lansingburgh (3-1, 4-2), with the winner gaining the Southeast Division’s No. 2 seed behind Bishop Maginn (4-0, 6-0). Maginn hosts Mohonasen (0-4, 1-5).
Schuylerville (5-0, 6-0), Chatham (6-0, 6-0) and Rensselaer (4-0, 6-0) are also in action tonight, with Section II’s other unbeatens, Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake (4-0, 6-0) and
Cohoes (4-0, 6-0), playing Saturday. Saturday’s card includes the Indian Bowl between Stillwater (0-5, 1-5) and host Mechanicville (1-4, 2-4).