The last time Guilderland drew this much preseason hype, back in the summer of 2007, the Dutchmen ended up playing for a Section II Class AA football championship that fall.
"Anytime you have returning varsity players, especially skill players that had a strong year, that's going to bring attention," said Dutchmen coach Dan Penna.
The spotlight shifts when you pass for over 1,700 yards, like Frank Gallo did last season, and when your top receiver and runner are back, too, along with proven linemen such as D'Angelo Livingston and Julian Christiano and your entire secondary.
"Everybody knows we have a lot of veterans, guys with a lot of experience," said Guilderland senior fullback and safety Marcus Knodler. "When we play our first game, it isn't going to be our first game."
Guilderland's last game, when Gallo threw for 325 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Niskayuna, could be a prelude of things to come in a Class AA league that's seen an enormous amount of player turnover.
Defending champion Shaker graduated its top four of quarterback Chris Landers, running back Ryan Griffin and star linemen David Morrison and Schuyler Huntington. Class AA runner-up Shenendehowa lost all but two starters, including do-everything Corey Acker, and the Chris Smith era at Columbia has come to an end.
"Our kids have high expectations, but each week we'll face an opponent that believes they can win, too," said Penna. "Week in and week out, it's still going to be awfully tough. Bethlehem's backfield is super. Our last three games with Ballston Spa came down to the final minutes. Shenendehowa is still Shenendehowa. We can go 7-0, or go 4-3 and be scratching for a playoff spot. It's who executes better, finishes in the fourth quarter."
Guilderland did that with 20 unanswered points in the 54-49 crossover game win again Niskayuna, and is hoping to continue its roll. Since that run to the Super Bowl in 2007 behind Gazette Offensive Player of the Year Drew Smith, the Dutchmen haven't won more than five games, and show just one playoff victory.
Last year's team lost to Columbia in the sectional quarterfinals, but won three straight games before that, and later outslugged Niskayuna, when Gallo set a school record with 24 receptions on 28 passes.
"Our goal is to get to the Section II title game. We expect nothing less. We've got to get there first, though," said Knodler. "Every practice, every game, we've got to give it our all to make that happen. We get there, then it's all in."
"It's a good feeling to be talked about in the preseason. It's been some time for us, but there are a lot of places we need to grow," said Penna. "We need our less experienced players, the returning veterans and guys who are new to the team to mature."
Gallo provides Guilderland with proven talent. After assuming the starting job when Joe Bender broke his leg in last year's season-opening loss to Christian Brothers Academy, Gallo passed for a school-record 1,758 yards and 14 touchdowns. He also set a Dutchmen single-game record with 417 yards on 23-for-30 passing in a 25-21 win over Bethlehem.
"When Frank became a starter, in practice and in games, there was a learning curve, and he started to rise to the challenge," Penna said of the senior, a 2012 all-state honorable-mention selection.
Jake Smith is back after catching 33 passes for six touchdowns and a school-record 600 yards. Running back Micaiah Henningham is back, as well, after leading the Dutchmen with 11 touchdowns.
"We're going to be able to do a lot of things well," said Christiano, a 6-foot-4, 275-pound senior tackle and defensive end. "We have one of the best, if not the best, quarterbacks in the section. We're a passing threat, but teams can't sleep on the run."
Bethlehem is coming off its first winning season (5-4) since 2005, and could be part of a Class AA changing of the guard. Like Henningham, Mike Graves returns for his third season as a starting back and the Eagles have a kicking threat in Spencer Ferrigan. Quarterback Dan Robeson has recovered from a mid-season knee injury, Rob Wildermuth starts his third season at tackle, and Jason Clas returns to anchor the defense from his end position.
"We won the lineman challenge. We've got good skill players back. Our JV teams won seven games," said Bethlehem coach Rick Leach. "This is our fifth year as a coaching staff, and this is the most athletic team we've had."
Bethlehem won its final three games in 2012 against Colonie, Niskayuna and LaSalle when Graves produced half of his 12 touchdowns, and Ferrigan nailed five field goals.
"We expect our division to be a dogfight," said CBA coach Joe Burke, whose Brothers are coupled in the Class AA Empire with Guilderland, Bethlehem, Shenendehowa, Saratoga Springs, Albany and Ballston Spa. "We've got to play good defense if we're going to make another run. We've got to stop teams."
CBA has standout defenders in linebacker Max Anthony and end Elliott Crosky, while Josh Wynn is a player to watch after he intercepted four passes in four games after his call-up from the school's junior varsity.
Nick Marini, Anthony and Crosky take over as CBA's lead runners to go with veteran lineman Griffin Clark and new starting quarterback Joe Kolbe, a sophomore.
Shenendehowa will go after its third straight Empire title and fourth consecutive Super Bowl berth with new starters in every spot except linebacker and defensive end, where Oliver Robinson and Erik Kromer return.
"Expectations at Shenendehowa remain the same, regardless of the number of starters we have back," said second-year coach Brian Clawson. "We have guys back who saw some action. Our JV went 9-0 and won the Super Bowl. We have guys who are used to winning."
Robinson will play a two-way role this year as Shenendehowa's fullback, as will Kromer at tight end. Veteran Matt Drum will play a significant role as a runner and receiver.
"We'll be more balanced with junior and senior starters," said Clawson. "The more experience we get, the better we'll be. It's a matter of them getting used to playing varsity football."
Shenendehowa graduate Dave Murello is the new coach at Ballston Spa, and has quarterback John McDonald and playmakers Sam Groves and Kiernan Mack among his lettermen. While filling in for an injured McDonald, Mack ran for three touchdowns and intercepted two passes in a 34-0 win over Saratoga Springs that sent the Scotties to the playoffs for the seventh year in a row.
Saratoga is looking to bounce back from a season full of injuries, with quarterback Jake Eglintine, standout linebacker Jordan Wilcox and two-way lineman Trevor Hallaran leading the effort.
Niskayuna believes a big turnaround is coming after its 2012 season ended with five straight defeats. Aidan O'Brien rushed for 1,600 yards and scored 22 touchdowns, and should get help from new starting quarterback Mike Sise. Ryan Feeney and Stephen VanHoesen will anchor the offensive line.
"Having Aidan back is a good start. Mike can throw the ball all over the yard and we've got guys who can catch. On defense we have tough kids," said Niskayuna coach John Furey. "We have a nice offense and a solid defense. It's going to be a fun, fun season."
Niskayuna opens its Empire Division schedule Friday against Colonie, which features a three-prongued running cast of Devon Edwards, Wayne Burt and Kevon Johnson. The Garnet Raiders' new offensive coordinator is former Niskayuna star quarterback Brian Grastorf.
"We have the ability to knock off all of the teams in our league," said Furey. "We want to make a run."
Schenectady made a superb run last season with four consecutive wins capped by a 28-27 triumph at CBA in the sectional quarterfinals. A 28-21 loss at Shaker the following week kept the Patriots from making their second Super Bowl appearance, the first coming in 2008.
"We're thinking Super Bowl," said Pats two-way lineman Justin Richards. "We're not thinking anything less."
Schenectady has one of Section II's most versatile players in runner, receiver and return man Felix Rodriguez, and a 1,000-yard rusher in Hassan Rainey. Quarterback Brandon Gwinner takes over for record-setter Kwami Jarvis, and Josh Fisherauer is a lineman with great potential.
"We have things to work on, but we're coming along. I'm seeing good things every day," said first-year Schenectady coach Mark Cerrone. "I've told the kids we can go up or down, and down is not an
option. The kids are buying into it."
Shaker's returning cast includes impact linebacker Jake Quay and Mike Mainella, who caught a touchdown pass in last season's 14-0 Super Bowl win over Shenendehowa.
No Class A team has a more difficult opening schedule than Troy, which meets Northwest Division heavyweights Queensbury, Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake and Amsterdam before its attempt to defend the Southeast Division title.
"Our first three games, that's a sledgehammer. It's a tough stretch," said Troy coach and recent Capital Region Football Hall of Fame inductee Jack Burger. "Hopefully, it sets the stage. It will show what kind of football team we are."
The Flying Horses are projected to be quite good. Maybe good enough to make a Class A Super Bowl appearance after semifinal losses to Burnt Hills in 2011 and Amsterdam last year. Troy won the Class AA championship in 2010, pushing its title total to seven.
"It's a little bit tradition, and what we have back," said Burger, when asked why his team was rated among the Class A group's best coming in. "We've got skill and we've got some linemen. We've got good size up front."
Troy's offensive line includes three-year starter Roy McClary and lettermen Ryan Byrnes, Raiquan Ward and Sean Breland. Rushing leaders Maurice Jones and Rayshawn Johnson, who combined for 18 touchdowns, are also back. Joe Germinerio returns to the secondary, and moves to the starting quarterback spot.
"Burnt Hills, Amsterdam, Queensbury and Troy are the favorites in our league," said Bishop Maginn coach Joe Grasso. "As for an upstart team? Maybe it will be us this year. We will be improved."
Bishop Maginn could be taking the same path that led to a 2008 Super Bowl berth. Maginn has CBA junior transfer Neiko Bianchino at quarterback and a running stable that includes freshman Ky'Ere Tillery and sophomore Jaushiir Weaver. Only five seniors, led by lineman Kamal Patterson and defensive end Andres Colon, dot the roster.
"We won one game last year with seven sophomores and four freshmen starting. We're still young, but a year better," said Grasso. "We want to win games this year. Next year, we'll want to win even more. It's happened before."
No Section II team has enjoyed more consistent success than Burnt Hills in recent years, in part because of the quality playing time coach Matt Shell gives to his reserves. When it their turn to start the next season, they're more than ready.
"We believe in giving opportunities," said Shell, who lost over two dozen seniors to graduation. "There's lot of chances in a game. They may not get as many snaps as a starter, but we coach them up and give them confidence."
Players like linemen Jeff Tope and Sam Bartlett, defensive end Mike Civitello and linebackers Matt Sterlina and David Nusbaum will see increased roles, while Dan Maynard's role changes from running back to quarterback.
Defensive end Paul Krowel, two-way lineman Nico Fragale and Ross Warren, middle linebacker David Newell and running back Josh Quesada logged significant time for a BH-BL team that won its sixth Section II title in seven years and went on to claim the state championship with a 12-1 record.
"We had a good scrimmage [with Guilderland, Queensbury and Middletown] Saturday, but that's what it was, a scrimmage. Come Friday, it counts," said Shell, whose Spartans host Lansingburgh. "I'm interested to see how they're going to react."
Quarterback Aidan Switzer, running backs Phil Wettersten and Kalen Minot, and lineman Marc Lambert are key players back for Queensbury.
Amsterdam's lineup has been bolstered with the addition of transfers Tyler Cranker, an all-state two-way lineman from Fonda-Fultonville, and Gabe Mendez, who quarterbacked the Broadalbin-Perth varsity in 2012.
Gloversville quarterback Asa Barnhill and Mohonasen running back Trevon Tucker are among the other players to watch.