Jake Ashcraft and Joe Messare are the only returning starters on Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake’s offensive line. The Spartans took an even bigger hit on the defensive side of the line, with their entire starting cast all gone.
“We go through this every year. Guys graduate, and guys step up,” said Burnt Hills senior running back Danny Maynard. “Two years ago, it was the linebackers. Last year, it was the secondary. Someone always steps up.”
Some big boys will need to as the team looks to regain its top spot in the new-look Class A Northwest Division and Section II tournament. Close setbacks against Queensbury in 2013 denied the Spartans both of those prizes.
“The game begins and ends with the kids up front. That’s where our question marks are. Last year and in 2013, we didn’t have those question marks,” BH-BL coach Matt Shell said before Wednesday’s practice. “It’s not like we’re, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ We’ve got kids who got good, quality reps with us last year and some kids up from the JV team that went to the Super Bowl.
“It’s a nice nucleus of kids who have been here and new kids. They’re young, but they’re big and strong. We think we have kids who can answer those questions.”
Defensive backs Packy Brown, Max Charlton, James Prezioso and Garrett Snyder stepped in effectively as juniors to fill Burnt Hills’ secondary needs last season, and then-sophomore John Clayton handled the quarterback duties down the stretch after his call-up from junior varsity.
Clayton turned in several strong efforts, with his two touchdown passes and field goal helping BH-BL beat Troy in the Class A semifinals, 24-19, as the Spartans advanced to their eighth consecutive Section II title game. Brown also emerged as a key play-maker as a defender and receiver.
“Every year, tons of guys graduate and we have tons of spots to fill. I don’t think it will be an issue,” said Ashcraft, a senior. “We’ve got some kids we expect will do a good job of filling in.”
Messare and Ashcraft will lead the offensive line cast from their guard positions. Ashcraft is moving from center to take the place of all-state performer Nico Fragale.
“We’ve got a lot of strong guys coming off the JV, and guys who saw [varsity] time,” said Messare, a junior. “It’s not like we’re scared. We should do well. We’re excited about it.”
Burnt Hills has tight end Brendan VanAllen back and Tyler Dowdle and Ethan Perregaux to run with Maynard.
“We have talent and kids that are willing to work hard,” said Shell. “With those two ingredients, and if the leadership comes through, we’ll be competitive.”
Though Burnt Hills went 8-2 last season, its 28-27 loss to Queensbury left the Spartans second in the Northwest Division, and its 14-7 loss to Queensbury denied them what would have been a Section II-record sixth straight area championship. That loss also denied Burnt Hills an opportunity to go after its second consecutive state title.
“That’s the goal every year, and we didn’t accomplish the goal,” said Ashcraft. “It leaves a bad taste.”
Queensbury put together a lengthy scoring drive late in the Super Bowl, and used that victory as a springboard to the state championship.
“You can’t go back and change it,” said Maynard, who scored BH-BL’s lone touchdown in the Super Bowl. “Our defense controlled the game for all but the last few minutes, but didn’t close out the game. On offense, there’s a long list of things we didn’t do. You pick parts of that game and try to improve on them.”
Burnt Hills is beginning a season without something to defend — a league title, section title or both — for the first time since 2006.
“It’s kind of a sore topic,” said Messare. “It’s definitely in the back of our minds. I think of it as fuel to keep us going.”
Burnt Hills’ Northwest schedule starts with newcomer Scotia-Glenville and ends with Queensbury, and includes games in between with newcomer Green Tech, South Glens Falls and Gloversville. The Spartans have non-league games with 2013 state Class B runner-up Schalmont and Troy.
Burnt Hills outlasted Troy in a four-overtime thriller last year, 18-12, for Shell’s 100th win. Daily Gazette Offensive Player of the Year Josh Quesada scored the deciding touchdown, and is among the team’s significant losses along with Fragale, Paul Krowel and David Newell.