Schenectady made one defensive stop after another in its season debut a year ago after allowing Colonie to score on its opening drive.
The big defensive plays became fewer as the football season progressed, and that’s an aspect of the game the Patriots are looking to reverse, starting tonight against Columbia in a Class AA Liberty Division game at Larry Mulvaney Field at 7.
“We need a great effort from all of them. We need 11 guys. We need to be aggressive with our blitzes, and gang-tackle,” said Patriots coach Jim Kramer. “Everyone in the area knows they have a good, hard runner who will follow a good offensive line.”
Kramer was referring to senior tailback Chris Smith, who last fall made the most significant impact during Columbia’s charge to the Liberty Division title and first Section II championship-game appearance since 1983. Four of the linemen who helped him set school records with 1,739 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns are back in Andrew Gawrys, Dom Desmonie, Joe Freemantle and Anthony Gullo.
“Their offensive style is not finesse,” said Kramer. “They come after you, and we’ve got to get nasty. We’re excited to play a physical brand of football. They’re going to come with it, and we’re going to try to stop it.”
Columbia coach Craig Cavotta expects to see an improved Schenectady team on both sides of the ball.
“They were in our game last year, and in most of their games,” he said. “They were young, and they return a lot of guys. Their sophomore tailback is now a junior. Their junior quarterback is now a senior. They’ve got wide receivers and linebackers coming back.
“They’re a better team now, plus we’re going on the road, and they play well home. It’s going to be a tough game.”
Schenectady will have the edge in quarterback experience with Kwame Jarvis returning for his second season as a starter. Austin Lobban has replaced John Smith as Columbia’s signalcaller.
“He’ll have some comfort with his line and Smith, but he’ll be making his first varsity start. We’re going to try to rattle him,” said Kramer. “The ideal situation is to put him in long-down situations and turn them into a throwing team.”
To get to that position, the Patriots will have to contain Smith. He ran for 125 yards, a touchdown and a pair of two-point conversions in the Blue Devils’ 22-13 win over Schenectady last year. Schenectady had beaten Columbia in four straight games before that.
“We can’t tackle him high. We’ve got to get on him and get low before he gets in the four-, five-, six-yard range,” said Kramer. “Maybe we can get a couple of turnovers on him.”
Smith rushed for over 200 yards four times last season and scored at least one touchdown in every game. Shenendehowa was the only team that pinned the Liberty Division Player of the Year down, holding him to 16 rushing yards in a 49-6 Super Bowl win, though Smith did have a pair of receptions covering 14 and 36 yards.
“We know the box is going to be full,” said Cavotta. “Someone else has to make plays. That’s no secret. We’ll see who is ready to step up.”
Felix Rodriguez is among Schenectady’s big-play guys. In his finest effort last year as a sophomore, he ran for 320 yards and two of his team-leading seven touchdowns in an overtime loss to Ballston Spa.
“Just like we don’t want their guy to get rolling, they don’t want Felix to get rolling,” said Kramer. “No doubt, with the ball in his hands, he’s explosive. He missed the middle and latter part of the season with some injuries, and he still had right around 900 yards.”
Schenectady struck first in last year’s contest before Columbia rallied as part of its eight-game winning streak.
“The thing that comes to mind is how they came out fired up and scored on their first drive,” said Cavotta. “I assume they’ll be ready to go for this one, too. They want to get off to a good start just like we do.”
“We have to give 100 percent every down,” said Jarvis, who threw a touchdown pass in last year’s contest. “We have to play a great game to beat them.”
Columbia dropped its 2011 season opener to Shaker before its streak to the Super Bowl, while Schenectady won just two times after topping Colonie.
“We can’t let our foot off the gas,” said DePasquale. “We want to start our season strong, and we want to keep climbing. We want to do things like our Super Bowl team [in 2008] did. That’s our inspiration. The way they played.”
Brian Clawson will make his debut as Shenendehowa’s head coach tonight at Albany, while reigning Section II Class A champion Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake plays at Troy in a televised game. Troy has won 22 consecutive regular season games since a 2008 loss to Bishop Maginn.
Defending Section II Class B champ Schalmont hosts Glens Falls tonight. Glens Falls is one of three schools that have moved from Class A to Class B.
“They’ve got a rich tradition up there, and [Glens Falls coach] Pat Lilac does a great job,” said Schalmont coach Joe Whipple. “Our first game is going to be a battle. They’re good. Really good.”