There were about 40 people gathered around a baseball diamond just beyond Route 75 in Athol Springs on Monday afternoon. They were in lawn chairs, shielding themselves from the sun with umbrellas, watching base hits and flyouts during a youth-league game.
Those people probably thought it was still summer.
But for many, it’s not. It is officially football season.
Just beyond the outfield of that baseball diamond, the occasional dink of an aluminum bat or the cheers applauding a secured fly ball were competing with sounds of a different season. St. Francis football coaches barked instructions for drills, chirps of whistles signaled water breaks, coaches and players yelled either in exasperation of a mistake or in support of a well-executed drill.
Monday marked the first day of practice permitted in New York State for many fall high school sports, including football. For St. Francis, along with St. Joe’s and Orchard Park — a trio of programs which left an indelible mark on a most memorable 2011 football campaign — it was time to get back to work.
All three teams finished atop last season’s final large school poll (Class AA state champion OP was No. 1, Monsignor Martin champion St. Francis was No. 2, and MMA runner-up St. Joe’s was No. 3). All three return standout players who complemented others who were some of the best to ever play for their school. All three have some younger players who have worked up through the program, and all have some intriguing newcomers to add to the mix.
“It’s always great to start playing and seeing the kids, and working hard, having some fun, dusting off the cobwebs and getting ready to go,” said Orchard Park coach Gene Tundo.
Orchard Park will defend its state championship despite the loss of many key seniors who led the undefeated Quakers to the state title and into the top 10 of USA Today’s East Region rankings.
“I think our guys just have to want to be the best they can,” said Tundo. “I told our guys, it’s like last year’s team was like the USA basketball team that won the gold, and this year we want to be like the ladies gymnastics team that wasn’t a lot of names, but just outworked everybody.”
OP certainly has some top players back from last year’s team. Senior Ben Holmes moves from receiver to quarterback, senior Austin Goltz is a top playmaker at receiver and 6-3, 270-pound senior Michael Senn is back to anchor the line.
OP also had several transfers come in from out of state. Among the key contributors are expected to be two junior lineman, Dawson Hillis and Kyle Brewer. Hillis is “as big as Senn,” Holmes said.
“You just try to band together,” said Tundo. “I welcome anybody that wants to play football at Orchard Park. We’re happy to have them and we’re ready to go.”
St. Francis won last year’s Monsignor Martin title with Akeel Lynch starring at running back. Lynch came to St. Francis from his Toronto in an attempt to gain more exposure to earn a college scholarship. It worked for Lynch, as he is now at Penn State.
On offense, St. Francis returns senior Brian Melisz to quarterback after he finished last season strong, but perhaps more important is the return of junior running back Alex Misterman. Misterman excelled when Lynch was not in the lineup, including the second half of last year’s Monsignor Martin final.
In the wake of Lynch’s success, St. Francis has two transfers from Canada. Sophomore Jamal Johnson has arrived from the Toronto area, while Devantie Campbell is a junior transfer from much farther away — Montreal. Johnson and Campbell are staying with a teammate’s family, just as Lynch did.
“One thing I think it it does for guys who have been here — sometimes you take things for granted and you don’t appreciate what’s going on,” said St. Francis coach Jerry Smith. “It doesn’t let anybody get complacent. It’s just like the real world. You go for a job, and you don’t perform, you’re out the door.
“We’ve had some guys who come out and say, ‘Oh, I’m the only running back they’ve got.’ Then, boom! some kid comes out because he didn’t play his freshman year. The other player says, ‘Where’d he come from?’ He who sits around, gets run over.”
St. Joe’s won the 2010 Monsignor Martin title and advanced to last year’s final behind standout quarterback Chad Kelly, The Buffalo News Player of the Year who is now at Clemson.
“I joked with the kids, ‘We might as well stop playing now that he’s not here.’” coach Dennis Gilbert said. “That’s crazy, you know — we’ve played football here for 100 years. Now it’s time for these guys to step up and make their mark on the program and make their own history. We’re excited about it.”
The Marauders have key players returning like juniors Rod Payne and Nigel Davis and senior Ilo Noble. The new faces include 6-foot-7, 250-pound Tremaine Shelton, a freshman who didn’t play football while at Buffalo Arts last year, and 6-6, 265 freshman Austin Greenwood, who has shown great strides from last season.
Of fitting all of the pieces together, Gilbert said, “it’s like a jigsaw puzzle.”