Schalmont’s varsity football team has learned it’s a lot easier to bring home victories when each player looks at the next like family.
Starting with weightlifting sessions in January, it’s something Coach Joe Whipple impresses upon his players — that they are a family. That unit doesn’t end on the gridiron, either.
It carries on to players’ real families at home and the support they give the program, whether in the form of rides to practice, helping out with team dinners or anything in between. Not surprisingly, “family” is the word the players’ shout when they break from a huddle — something that fans may hear resonating at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse on Sunday as the Sabres vie for the state championship against Maine-Endwell.
“It’s hard,” said Whipple of the regimen that has brought his team to its second championship game in three years. “We do it on purpose to see who is really committed to the program, not only among the kids but the parents, too.”
And there’s no doubt there’s communitywide commitment to the team in Rotterdam. That means massive spreads at tailgating parties before games and a town that’s been awash in Sabres green and white all week. The district has even filled seven buses with fans to accompany the team to the Carrier Dome.
“Everybody’s all in,” Whipple said.
Not that it’s been easy. Schalmont’s varsity squad has faced a year’s worth of adversity off of the field that students have managed to overcome.
They rallied around Dante Gallucci, a towering defensive end who was diagnosed with lymphoma last spring. Then earlier this month, they learned he was in remission, news that pushed the players to fight even harder for their teammate..
The Sabres also had to fight for the eligibility of Trevon Perez-Tucker, who transferred from Mohonasen. He was initially deemed ineligible for the season until school officials were able to show he had actually moved into the district six months earlier.
The team also lost a member of its extended family. Dan Smith, father of lineman Aaron Smith, died of a heart attack earlier this month, something his son turned around into a touchdown during Schalmont’s quarterfinal rout of Beekmantown on Nov. 15 — the same day as the funeral.
“We’ve had a lot of adversity through the whole season,” Whipple said. “The family environment has helped us overcome it.”
Schalmont last visited the Carrier Dome in 2010, when the team took the district by storm. The team’s motto that season — “We believe in finish” — was almost omnipresent throughout the campus.
The 2010 team was only the fourth Section II, Class B team to play for a state title. But the bid fell painfully short against Hornell, the state’s defending champion, who thumped the Sabres, 50-20.
Whipple recalls the game and sometimes questions whether the team got too nervous — whether the looming finality of the season gave some of the seniors the jitters. The tenor this year is much different.
“It’s more routine,” he said.
Granted, Schalmont is facing another beast of an opponent. Maine-Endwell, from outside Binghamton, has won two consecutive state championships and is riding a 37-game winning streak into Sunday.
But with the Schalmont community behind the team, Whipple likes his chances. He’s also seeing this team play some of the best football he’s seen during his time in the district.
“Our kids are playing the best ball I’ve seen them play in the five years I’ve been here,” he said.