Joe Whipple took Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons to its first football playoff game in 2007. Two years later, Tom Pallas’ Golden Knights made it back to the Section II tournament, and they added a historic piece to the program’s legacy with a victory over Warrensburg.
Late in that same 2009 season, Saratoga Central Catholic, led by Phonsey Lambert, made its only postseason appearance and stunned favored Lake George on a last-second field goal.
John Barber wants to follow the path of those coaches with the newly merged Bishop Gibbons/Saratoga Catholic team.
“What’s got me excited is the kids are excited. You can see it in their faces, with their expressions,” said Barber, who played football at Schuylerville High School and Hudson Valley Community College. “I’m looking forward to leading this group, and seeing how far we can take it.”
Barber was hired for the program’s head coaching position after Pallas stepped down in late May. Barber’s coaching resume includes a varsity assistant spot at Schuylerville and assistant posts at Hudson Valley Community College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and most recently Castleton State.
“It might not happen in our first year, but that’s my goal. That’s my purpose, to make the playoffs,” said Barber. “We’ve got to stay healthy, stay positive in what we’re doing and stay focused.
“I think we’re headed in the right direction.”
“I believe John Barber is going to do a good job with them,” said Pallas, who served on the football staffs at Guilderland and Shaker
before his five-year stint with Bishop Gibbons. “They seem to be on good footing, even though they’re starting from scratch, in a way, and I hope they can win some games.”
Barber’s current objectives are rounding his 25 players into game shape with weightlifting and conditioning routines, and finding more guys to join them.
“Every day, kids are telling me other kids are interested. Some kids are out there mingling to see what’s going on,” Barber said. “I tell our kids all the time to recruit your friends and your classmates. Get them excited. Get them interested.”
Fifteen Bishop Gibbons athletes and 10 from Saratoga Catholic have been working out in preparation for competition in the Class D South Division. Bishop Gibbons is serving as the program’s home base.
The team has home games with Canajoharie and Hoosic Valley scheduled for Bishop Gibbons, and home games with Lake George and Cambridge slated to be played at East Side Recreation Field in Saratoga Springs.
“The main thing is the boys will continue to play ball,” said Pallas. “That’s the most important thing.”
Saratoga Catholic struggled with player numbers since returning to the varsity level after a 19-year hiatus in 2008. The Saints called off their 2010 and 2012 seasons when not enough players were available, and in 2011 forfeited three games due to injures.
Bishop Gibbons has for years fought the numbers battle, and Pallas’ last three teams were extremely thin, and also full of underclassmen. The Golden Knights always played, though, until the fourth week last season, when injuries took their toll and caused a forfeit against Cambridge. Bishop Gibbons lost its seven other games.
“My first two years we went 6-3 both times. We had a lot of good players. I have a lot of good memories from those years,” said Pallas. “The last few years it was a real numbers battle. We didn’t get a lot of wins, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
“We had some positives and we had some tough times. That’s life. That’s sports.”
Pallas was Whipple’s defensive coordinator in 2008 when Bishop Gibbons put together its 6-3 mark. Though a tiebreaker kept ND-BG out of the playoffs, it was the Schenectady school’s first winning season since 1976 (5-3-1).
Pallas took the head coaching position when Whipple moved to Schalmont, and his 2009 team’s 6-3 record included a 46-12 Class D quarterfinal triumph over Warrenburg, when all-state quarterback Derrick Pitts ran for six touchdowns.
Before the 6-3 seasons, Bishop Gibbons last enjoyed consecutive winning campaigns in 1972 (6-2-1), 1971 (4-3-1) and 1970 (5-3).
“My son [Andrew] played when I came on. I intended to stay a year and go away. When Joe went to Schalmont, I didn’t want to leave the kids in a lurch,” said Pallas. “I wanted to do right by them, but I knew I wasn’t going to do it forever.”
Lambert, Saratoga Catholic’s athletic director, said the merger was a go in late April.
“I was waiting to see how the merger would play out. There had been talk of it for several years, and I wanted to see if it would come to fruition,” said Pallas. “ When I knew the program would be OK, after five years, it seemed like the opportune time for me. The timing was right.”
“From day one, the kids from both schools have done a great job of helping each other. From an administration standpoint, we’re getting support from both schools. My staff is full of experienced coaches [including longtime RPI assistant Will Headen]. We’ve redone the locker room,” said Barber. “It’s coming together.”