The mood was upbeat in the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake locker room Wednesday afternoon as the Spartans donned their shoulder pads and prepared for their third football practice.
“There’s a lot of positive energy flowing around,” said Burnt Hills senior lineman Nico Fragale. “We’ve got a lot of skill up from the junior varsity, and a lot of guys who have been around the block and know what they’re doing. We’ve got guys who are going to make plays.”
Burnt Hills lost a significant play-maker when 2012 rushing leader Dan Porter was recently lost for the season with a knee injury. Other impact performers, like quarterback/kicker Ryan McDonnell and defensive back/receiver Eric Dillon, both all-state first-team selections, are among a large cast that graduated from last season’s state Class A championship team.
“What are other teams thinking? We’re going to lose our trend of winning and they’re going to take over,” said Fragale. “We’re not going to let down. We’re going to go full speed ahead.”
The Spartans are moving forward with a handful of veterans like defensive end Paul Krowel and linebacker David Newell and a bunch of varsity newcomers, including Dylan Guy. The senior receiver and defensive back was a late transfer from Maine last fall and did not compete.
“Last year, I watched them play. I played my whole life, and wanted to play again. It’s my last shot,” said Guy, who attended Noble High School. “I decided to come out and try to help them win another championship.”
Burnt Hills won its fifth consecutive Section II title — and sixth in seven years — with a 48-6 thumping of Amsterdam before its three-game state tournament run last fall. Over two dozen seniors who dotted the Spartans roster have moved on, including the entire starting defensive secondary and line star Nick Marchesiello.
“There are spots we need to fill, and that creates a good, competitive atmosphere,” said Burnt Hills coach Matt Shell. “We’ve got a good group of kids coming back, and a good group of kids who played on our JV team that won the Super Bowl. We’re going to be all right.”
“We’ve got a great group of guys on and off the field,” said Fragale. “Hard workers. That’s what it comes down to.”
Shell routinely shuffled players in and out last season when his varsity went 12-1, capped by a 40-20 victory over Sweet Home in the state Class A final at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. That experience-providing move should pay off this season.
“Even though we have only eight guys who played huge roles, we have other guys who have played. Even if kids weren’t starters, if they could help us, they played. That’s the way we’ve always been here. We’ve never been set on 11 players,” said Shell. “Look at our stats. We never have guys among the leaders, but our overall stats are usually pretty good.”
Burnt Hills’ returning cast includes Josh Quesada, Danny Maynard and Joey Butler, who were part of the team’s run-by-committee backfield, and promising linebacker David Nusbaum.
“You may not know the name, but we consider him a returning player with experience. He’s 210 pounds and tackles like his brother [Evan] did,” Shell said of Nusbaum. “As the season progressed, he played more and more. He ended up playing meaningful downs in the state final.”
Fragale (offense) and Krowel (defense) were recognized for their standout play on the line following the state championship game in which BH-BL raced to a 26-0 lead. Maynard was named the contest’s most valuable player after he ran for a pair of first-half touchdowns and piled up 128 yards. The junior will quarterback the Spartans this season.
“He’s been a quarterback all the way up through. He led our JV and freshman teams and won games. It’s not like it’s going to be new for him,” said Shell.
Winning the state title was something new for Burnt Hills after it had lost three previous times at the Carrier Dome, including a 27-20 setback against Maine-Endwell in 2011. Last year’s state title-game success left Shell two wins shy of 100 in his career that began in 2002.
“No one can take that championship away from us. It was great to finally do that, but it’s a new season now,” said Fragale, who made the all-state second-team defense as a junior. “We have to get after it again, and getting back to the Carrier Dome, that’s a good goal for us.”
“They have expectations. They know what they have to do to be competitive,” said Shell. “Our other teams set good examples for the team coming up with the way they carried themselves, how they worked and the attention they gave to the little things.”
Shell said that without Porter, Burnt Hills will be missing not only a superb running back but also an outstanding team leader. Porter rushed for just under 1,000 yards last season and scored one of his 18 touchdowns in the state title game.
“The leadership piece is something I worry about,” Shell said. “We have kids who have played a lot of meaningful downs. Leadership is the unknown.”
Burnt Hills opens its season Sept. 6 at home against Lansingburgh. Games at Troy, Gloversville and Queensbury follow. Troy dealt the Spartans a season-opening loss last season before their 12-game winning streak, which is tied for the third longest in the state behind Hoosick Falls (13) and Maine-Endwell (25).