Joe Whipple didn’t have to encourage his football players very much in the months leading up to Monday’s first preseason practice. When Schalmont’s head coach did, he pointed to the past.
“At one of our first July workouts, guys weren’t going down enough on their parallel squats. I told them they could be going down two inches more,” Whipple recalled. “I said, ‘Guys, that’s how close we were. Two inches.’ ”
Whipple was referring to last fall’s state Class B championship game at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, when the Sabres grabbed a lead late in the fourth quarter and let it get away in a stunning 22-21 loss to Maine-Endwell. The Sabres had won 12 games before that, including a 66-0 semifinal rout of Marlboro and a 60-6 regional thumping of Beekmantown.
“Of course, we want to get back,” said Schalmont senior running back and outside linebacker Kyle Strube. “It was so close, and we let it slip through our fingers. We want it bad.”
“There were a lot of tears on that field. No doubt they’re extremely motivated,” said Whipple. “Any team that gets there wants to get back. They’ve got the focus.”
They’ve got size, speed and experience, too. The senior class which Whipple called the program’s best since 2010 features quarterback and linebacker Nick Gallo, the 2013 Daily Gazette Defensive Player of the Year, as well as Strube, Hunter Gac, Devin Higgins, Jack Batchler, Austin Wetsel and Matt Capovani.
“It’s really good having a lot of guys back. Everyone knows what’s going on,” said Capovani, a two-way lineman who won a state baseball title in June. “We don’t have to do as much minor stuff. We can focus on details. It’s starting to flow already.”
Whipple said he’ll be using the first few weeks of the season to find the most effective mix of players. He lost nine seniors to graduation, including three-time 1,000-yard rusher Devon Willis, star kick returner Trevon Perez-Tucker and impact lineman Marcus Ramundo.
“We’ll use the first few games sort of like a preseason, and then make our adjustments,” said Whipple. “It’s something we’ve always done. Last year, we switched our defense around a litte bit.”
That defensive group ended the regular season with three straight shutouts and posted two more in the playoffs. The Sabres will be bolstered on that side of the ball by Green Tech senior transfer Shamere Pinn.
“I think, on defense, we’re going to be just as good as last year,” said Strube. “We’re fast outside and strong up the middle, and our corners lock down.”
Schalmont was outscored by a Section II Class B opponent only once in its last 47 games, when it lost to Glens Falls (21-14) in the 2012 area championship game. The Sabres opened the 2013 season against Glens Falls and prevailed, 51-0.
“We’ve been fortunate not to lose a lot of games, but when we have lost, it really motivated the guys. Look at Glens Falls two years ago,” said Whipple. “The guys want to continue the winning tradition. They don’t want to be the team that loses.”
Schalmont won the last six Class B West Division titles, reached the last five Section II finals and won four Super Bowls during that stretch. It’s 2010 team finished 12-1 following the program’s first state championship-game appearance and a setback against Hornell.
“We ask a lot of the kids and they work so hard. You want it for them,” said Whipple. “It’s a new season. Let’s see how far they can take it.”
Whipple said goal No. 1 is making the playoffs. Schalmont has been shifted to the Class B Reinfurt Division and joins Albany Academy, Cohoes, Hudson, Ichabod Crane and Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk. The Sabres have non-league games against Glens Falls and Class A Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake.
“It’s week to week, day to day,” said Capovani. “What we talk about is win the day and keep going forward. We never look ahead. Keep getting better and you’re going to get there.”
Whipple said Schalmont’s consistent success is in part due to the youth feeder program and elevating young players to the varsity. Last year’s team had Jake DeFayette and Cameron Brooks as ninth-graders, and Zac O’Dell as a sophomore.
“Our plan has been to classify kids at a young age,” said Whipple. “That’s definitely been important for us. We bring guys up when they’re freshman and sophomores, and when it’s their time, they get it.”