In one way, this football season will be like no other for Shenendehowa. In another way, it could be like so many campaigns before.
The Plainsmen have a new coach in Brian Clawson and a new offensive cast, as well as a strong belief that big things are once again on the horizon for a program that’s experienced more success than any other in the Section II large-school group.
“We have the potential to be very, very good,” said Clawson, who will make his official debut tonight at Albany when the Plainsmen open defense of their Class AA Empire Division title. “A lot of things have to fall in place, though.”
They have so far, with what Clawson described as a productive first few weeks of meshing and learning, and a solid performance in Saturday’s annual scrimmage with Union-Endicott.
“I feel good. We’re in a pretty good spot,” said Clawson, who is in his 12th year as a member of the Shenendehowa football staff. “This senior class has shown great leadership, so far, and we’ve got a great junior class. We had great energy and focus in our preseason camp. The progression has been very good, so far, and we feel we’re ready to go.”
They’ll go with an offense led by last year’s backup tailback, Marcelino Christie, new starting quarterback Ryan Buss and Corey Acker, who split time at running back and receiver in 2011. Christie takes over for Daily Gazette Offensive Player of the Year Tony Fusco, who scored a school-record 32 touchdowns to go with his 1,594 rushing yards.
“Our scrimmage was very productive. We found out we can execute on offense. Everyone knows their assignments. We did a lot of things well,” Clawson said. “We’re still making some mistakes, but we’ll correct those.”
The eager Plainsmen are confident they’ll do so and prosper in part because of Clawson’s urging and optimism. He’s an up-beat guy, and it’s obviously rubbed off.
“Coach is so enthusiastic and positive. It’s a new era in the program and everything is high tempo. He’s brought a new energy. Words are hard to describe coach Clawson. He’s a great guy,” said senior linebacker Lucas Buckley. “You want to play for him. You want to play hard for him.”
Buckley is one of the veterans who helped send Brent Steuerwald into retirement with an 11th Section II championship and 11 victories that pushed his 44-year total to 318. The last triumph came in the state quarterfinals, in a dramatic overtime battle with North Rockland, before Newburgh Free Academy ended Shenendehowa’s 38th winning season under Steuerwald.
“It was cool to be part of the last chapter with coach Steuerwald. It’s neat to be part of the first chapter with coach Clawson,” said Buckley. “We look up to coach Clawson, and we’ll do everything in our power to have a good season. He’s done everything for us. Now, it’s up to us to win games.”
Shenendehowa won each of its 10 Section II games in 2011 by at least 17 points, while its defense posted five shutouts. Buckley, linebacker Chris Miller, tackle Chris Stewart and the secondary trio of Acker, Ryan Buss and Kyle Buss return to the starting unit.
“We like where we are, but nothing is going to be handed to us,” said Buckley, who will see action at fullback. “Shenendehowa comes with tradition, and it comes with a target. That’s why it’s so important to not take a day off.”
Albany coach Jon McClement is hoping his team will be rewarded for its diligence.
“By the time they leave, I want to make sure they have a positive experience. The easy way is to get some wins,” said McClement. “We haven’t done that the last few seasons, but we’ll continue to work at it and try to improve. We’ll run rep after rep. I see potential.”
The Falcons have dropped 37 straight games since winning three in a row late in the 2007 season.
“This is my third group now, and the teams before never let down or quit. We didn’t have to raid the JV to finish,” McClement said. “Numbers in football are down, in general, and we’re keeping kids interested.”
Justin Holmberg, Dysheek Sanders, Cody Thomason and Chris Walcott are among the players who will lead the Falcons.
“The biggest thing is point differential. If you can’t score, you can’t win,” said McClement, whose team scored six points or less seven times in 2011. “We’ve got to put the ball in the end zone.”
Bethlehem may make the biggest strides forward among the seven Empire Division teams. The Eagles won two times last year, and have had just one winning season since their Section II title run in 2001.
“Last year, we improved, and we want to continue to build on that,” said Bethlehem coach Rick Leach. “We didn’t set goals because I feel you focus on those goals instead of the process. We just want to get better every day.”
Six starters return on both sides of the ball including rushing and scoring leader Mike Graves and tackles leader Dan Robeson. Graves and Guilderland’s Micaiah Henningham were two of division’s top sophomore running backs last year.
“There’s no one team that has all of their guys back,” said Christian Brothers Academy coach Joe Burke. “It’s all about developing youth. You hope they grow up fast and can make a difference for you.”
Major turnover has left the Brothers with seven players who saw extensive varsity action on a team that lost only to Shenendehowa in the regular season and to Columbia in the sectional semifinals. Among them are standout runner Cameron Wynn and linemen Mike Zaloga and Vinnie DiBiase.
“I think you could see a division winner with a loss and a second-place team with two losses. I wouldn’t be surprised. I think there’s a lot of parity,” said Ballston Spa coach John Bowen. “Looking at the Liberty, you could see the same type of thing play out.”
Ballston Spa will go after its seventh straight playoff berth with an all-junior backfield that includes new quarterback John McDonald, a veteran offensive line and a focus on defensive improvement.
“We weren’t good on defense, and that was very frustrating. In my first seven years here we got after people, and we went away from that,” said Bowen. “We’ve made a concerted effort to fix that.”
Schenectady’s objective is to gain a top-two finish in the Liberty Division, and get the home playoff advantage that comes with it.
“Our kids have been talking as a goal to host a home playoff game,” said Patriots coach Jim Kramer. “Your percentage of victory increases at home.”
Schenectady made the playoffs in each of the last five seasons, and at home, the Pats went 3-0. They also went 0-5 on the road, including a loss last year at CBA as the No. 3 seed from the Liberty, and a loss at Ballston Spa in 2010 as the No. 4 seed.
“We like our turf. We think we move well on our turf, and we get good support from the community,” Kramer said.
Schenectady hosts reigning Liberty Division champ Columbia tonight in a game featuring two of the premier running backs in Class AA, in the Pats’ Felix Rodriguez and the Blue Devils’ Chris Smith.
“There’s a lot at stake in game one. After week one, one team is going to be in a very good position, and the other is going to be trying to figure out their weaknesses,” said Kramer. “It’s a big game, but nothing says we’re going to finish one-two. A lot of other teams are going to have something to say about it.
“Each game is going to be a battle to see who can outexecute the other team. I’d be extremely shocked if someone ran the table. Every team has a couple of pieces they’re ready to hang their hat on.”
Schenectady has Kwame Jarvis back at quarterback and an improved line anchored by Gazette all-star Tyler DePasquale. Columbia has a veteran line and a pair of defensive standouts in linebacker Anthony South and nose guard El Shaddia Gilmore-VanHoesen.
“We got our name out there. Now, it’s time to defend it,” said Smith, a senior. “It’s an even division with a lot of good teams, but we put in the our work. We’ll be ready.”
Columbia bounced back from a season-starting loss to Shaker to claim the Liberty crown at 4-1, and won eight straight games in all to reach its first Super Bowl since 1983. LaSalle, Schenectady and Shaker each went 3-2 in the division, with Niskayuna 2-3. Colonie went 0-5 and looks to regroup under new coach Bill Roemer.
“We had success last year,” said Columbia coach Craig Cavotta. “We’re trying to build some consistency. We feel we still have something to prove.”
Niskayuna has a streak of four consecutive winning seasons it would like to add to as it seeks a return to the playoffs. The Silver Warriors bring back the core of their defense anchored by linebackers Nate Martin and Nikko Sacks, and have promising sophomore Aidan O’Brien, who ran for over 100 yards in each of their their last two games.
“Last year, we won our last three to finish with a winning season. We’d like to add a fifth. We’ve never done that,” said Niskayuna coach John Furey. “We’re looking to get up there.”
Shaker has a pair of all-state returnees in linebacker Ryan Griffin (fifth) and lineman David Morrison (sixth), and a proven quarterback in Chris Landers. Griffin was tabbed the Liberty Defensive Player of the Year and led the Blue Bison in rushing and scoring. LaSalle has an all-state receiver/return man in Gabe Smith (fifth) and transfer Tyler Gagnon, who led Catholic Central in scoring last year.
No Section II team can match Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake’s success rate over the last six seasons, with each Spartan team reaching the Class A final, five of them winning it, and the 2011, 2009 and 2008 teams making it to state title games.
“People can’t be complacent,” said all-state third-team center Nick Marchesiello. “Last year, we made it far, but we can’t think it’s just going to happen. We’ve got to work.”
Burnt Hills progressed at a rapid rate in the preseason, and will enter tonight’s game at Troy ahead of last year. The Spartans’ veteran cast includes Northwest Division all-stars in quarterback Ryan McDonnell, lineman Nico Fragale, running back Dan Porter and the secondary trio of Eric Dillon, Billy Chapman and Shomari Ingram.
“We have a lot of kids who played, and that’s always a plus,” said coach Matt Shell, who sports an 86-22 10-year record, with a 64-8 mark over the last six. “We can get through things a little faster, and new things, we can take more time with.”
“Wins and championships are a by-product of all the work you put in. It’s about doing things the right way,” said McDonnell. “Little things lead to big things.”
One thing BH-BL did not attain last year was the division title after taking five straight. A Week 2 loss at Amsterdam proved costly as the Spartans placed second to the Rugged Rams, though the Spartans later avenged that setback in the Super Bowl.
“Coach tells us, ‘Don’t live in the past,’ ” said McDonnell. “This team hasn’t done anything yet. We’ve got to focus on one week at a time, trust the coaches and trust the film.”
First-year Amsterdam coach Doug Edick is thinking reload instead of rebuild, despite losing 18 seniors from last year’s 9-1 team. Pat Liverio, who in 16 years guided the Rugged Rams to a 130-34-1
record, six Section II titles and the 2005 state crown, is helping out as an assistant.
“We lost some good seniors. Several of them are playing in college, but we’ve got some key kids back, and there’s a lot of tradition here. We hope to use speed to our advantage and win some games,” said Edick. “Our goal is to play in the Super Bowl. That’s the goal every year in Amsterdam.”
Northwest all-star Geo Rodriguez moves from receiver to quarterback. Rushing leader Brett Stanavich, Mason Calhoun, Rob Sherlock and Isaiah Martin are also back.
Troy has designs on another Southeast Division title and a deep playoff run with a small but talented roster that includes a trio of holdovers from the 2010 state Class AA runner-up team in Nick Valenti, Victor Pirela and Sean Donnelly. Valenti, a linebacker and fullback, was the 2011 Southeast Defensive Player of the Year.
“If we continue to get better and stay healthy, down the road I’d like to think we can be in the mix,” said Troy coach Jack Burger, who has a 32-player roster. “We’ve got a good, solid nucleus. They have done the things we’ve asked and there’s very little ego in this group. For their sake, for the time and effort they’ve put in, I hope they can be successful.”
Three of Troy’s last four seasons have ended with a Class A playoff loss against Burnt Hills — in the 2008 and 2011 semifinals, and in the 2009 title game. The two teams meet tonight at Troy.
“You’re talking about two teams that have a lot of respect for each other, but we’re going to go after each other,” said Burger.
Mohonasen won four games last year, one more than the four seasons combined, and made its first playoff appearance since 2007.
“Getting to the playoffs last year raised the bar,” said Mohonasen coach Dennis Corbitt. “I continually ask the kids, ‘What mark are you going to leave,’ and they want to do better. They’re focused and excited.”
Kenny Fortune spearheads a group of eight experienced linemen. Trevon Tucker, Mark Riggi and Eric Pierone are other lead lettermen, and Vinny DiTripano is a newcomer with impact potential.
Lansingburgh and Green Tech have moved from the Southeast Division to the Class B Reinfurt, leaving Troy, Mohonasen, Bishop Maginn, Averill Park and Scotia-Glenville to vie for four postseason berths.
“Our division is really tough,” said Corbitt. “I don’t count anyone out. When you do that, it’s an easy way to lose.”
Glens Falls had shifted from the Northwest Division to the Class B West, leaving Gloversville, Queensbury and South Glens Falls to settle playoff positions with Burnt Hills and Amsterdam.