In the late afternoon of Monday, Aug. 16, the first day of football practice in New York State, Riverside coach Tony Truilizio gathered his players in the school cafeteria and made sure he had their attention.
It was just a prepractice talk, but it had the intensity of a pregame speech, because he was letting them know why this season was special -- for their team, and for their city.
"From a standpoint of history, and tradition, we are setting a new path forward, not only as a team, but as an entire league. For the last 106 years, Riverside and the City of Buffalo has played in what we called the Harvard Cup. The Harvard Cup is the oldest -- correction, was the oldest -- running consecutive championship in the entire country. Which meant it was a special thing to win that Harvard Cup.
"But as everything else, times change, traditions change, people change. And now, you have been blessed, whether you realize it or not, to play for what we would call the state championship.
"In past years we could get away with light workouts in the summer, and still be successful. In past years, we could get away with the simple stuff. Now, it's a whole new ballgame.
"You are now playing for the pride of the City of Buffalo, not for Riverside only. You are playing for an entire city. That's going to be one of the most important things you learn this year -- that it's not about you. It's about everyone who has ever played the game of football in the Harvard Cup."
The Harvard Cup final will not be played on Thanksgiving Day this year. It will be the first time the championship will not be held since 1903. Instead, nine teams that formerly vied for the city championship have merged into Section VI -- which is as good as it has ever been, having won an unprecedented eight state championships over the past two seasons.
"Our kids are excited about it," said South Park coach Tim Delaney, who won a Harvard Cup as a player for the Sparks and as an assistant with Hutch-Tech. "We don't talk about it, but there's the thought of being able to play at The Ralph for a Section VI championship. They understand, they're excited about going out and playing suburban teams and getting more recognition.
"To me the Thanksgiving game was a big deal. I'm very excited to play Section VI and excited to showcase our kids and my coaching staff and show people that we know what's going on and that our kids can play football. Another part of me says we gave up 106 years of tradition. But this is where we are and I'm excited to move forward."
The common refrain, when it comes to how far city programs can move forward in the section, is that the talent is there. It certainly has been. Mike Williams, a Riverside grad, is No. 1 on the depth chart as a rookie for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Steven Means was huge on the line for Grover Cleveland a few seasons ago -- now he's a 6-foot-4, 236-pound starting defensive end for the University at Buffalo.
What isn't there? The infrastructure that suburban programs have long been accustomed to: full junior varsity rosters and programs, more coaches, more trainers, more equipment.
Ask longtime observers of high school football in Western New York, even many from within the city, and their opinion would be that the Buffalo City Schools should have entered Section VI on a two- or three-year plan. That would make for a gradual transition and the building up of that infrastructure.
Superintendent James A. Williams, an ardent supporter of city sports since taking the post in 2005, didn't want to wait. At an offseason meeting to discuss the possible move, a superintendent who has developed a reputation for doing things his way made it clear to others that despite any reservations they might have had, the city would be joining Section VI.
The city schools always had the option to do so. The Buffalo Public Schools are members of Section VI and have competed in sectional and state competition in most of its other sports, so Section VI realigned its divisions to include the city schools.
In some ways the season will be a fascinating one -- strong city programs, such as Riverside (winner of the last two Harvard Cups) and small school power Burgard, are expected to be competitive and should be in the playoff hunt.
For other schools, the question marks are bigger. Bennett made the Harvard Cup semifinals last year but now has entered the toughest block in Western New York football -- AA South, where Orchard Park, Lancaster, Jamestown, Clarence and Frontier routinely pound away at each other all season.
For decades, fans and followers have wondered how the best city teams would stack up against the section's teams. City boosters wondered about that state playoff road and how far their schools could advance -- if they had the chance.
"In the past it was easy for our players to look ahead on the schedule because we played the same schedule every year," Hutch-Tech coach Chris Gelsomino said. "This is truly a unique challenge. We're going to tough it out."
Everyone's education starts in the fields behind the schools on Friday night. Riverside will open its new Charlie Dingboom Field against Niagara Falls, while Section VI Class A playoff team Hamburg will meet Lafayette at All High Stadium. Grover Cleveland will take its longest road trip in a while when it plays at Wilson.
Both city stadiums -- as well as the Johnnie B. Wiley Sports Pavilion -- have undergone huge renovations in recent years under former Buffalo Athletic Director David Thomas.
While the facilities have vastly improved, there is concern among Section VI coaches that city teams may not have enough players to field complete teams -- specifically at the JV level. The city started an organized JV program only in the last decade. While Riverside will field two 40-player rosters (one varsity and one JV), some programs have never had a JV team at all until this season.
Section VI has become successful on the state level partly due to its commitment to play as much football as possible, instituting a consolation bowl game system in the last decade that has enabled more players to play more games.
"The biggest concern is the JV programs and the lack of JV programs -- are they going to have a full schedule?" said Lockport coach Greg Bronson. "If not, that could leave our kids out of a JV game or two and delay their development and not give them the opportunities they've had."
Many concerns have focused on Lafayette, which is set to be shut down after this school year (to be later reopened) after a scathing report by the state education department. New Buffalo Public Schools Athletic Director Aubrey Lloyd confirmed Wednesday that Lafayette will not be fielding a JV team for the first two weeks.
Lafayette currently does not have enough JV players who are eligible because they have not participated in the required number of practices. Lloyd said Lafayette will have its eligibility issues resolved by Week Three.
Lloyd himself is an example of the differences between the suburbs (one AD per school) and the city, where he oversees 16 schools. Since practices began, he has traveled around to the nine football teams' practices to ensure programs were on track.
"It's going very well and we're all very excited," Lloyd said. "The preparation is there, and Dr. Williams has given a lot of attention to the athletic programs in the budget, specifically football. We're beefing up every one of our fitness facilities, we have more athletic trainers, we're getting more equipment, and the kids are noticing.
"The kids know that this is something special. There is some anxiety, but we'll get through it -- this is a very positive move for the Buffalo Public Schools."