Eric Jantzi knew all about how good the Orchard Park football program was when he was the head coach at North Tonawanda for 11 years, as his state championship-winning Lumberjacks banged helmets quite a bit in the playoffs with the state championship-winning Quakers.
Last year, in his first season away from NT, Jantzi moved to Orchard Park and joined the OP coaching staff as a volunteer junior varsity assistant, and he learned a bit more about what goes into such a top-flight program.
Then, just this week, he took his 6-year-old son to his first practice at Orchard Park Little Loop Football.
"They have two teams at every age level, and they are really well-coached and organized, and it shows an obvious reason of why [Orchard Park] is successful," said Jantzi, who is assisting on the OP varsity this year. "There is hardly ever any attrition, so if kids play one year, they play the next, so the kids are having fun and being coached well. It makes sense how things work out. Have the kids involved at an early age, they stay with it. It all makes sense."
How things work out, how things make sense in Orchard Park is that their football program wins. Over and over. Last season, Orchard Park won its first Section VI title since 2008. Most schools would call that two championships in four years. OP called it a title drought.
The Quakers have won 12 sectional titles, the most by any school since the Section VI championships began in 1979. They have the most title game appearances (18) and the record for most consecutive appearances (seven from 2001 to '07) at Ralph Wilson Stadium, which has become a postseason home for the Quakers — just a few miles from their houses.
Last year, OP won its second state championship to go with the one it earned in 2008.
Ask those connected with the Orchard Park football program what is behind its success, and there is a long list of reasons. That long list starts with the long list of players on OP's roster. Orchard Park is the sixth-largest school in Western New York (which puts it in the middle of the pack in AA), but it has the quality to go with the quantity.
There is top-notch coaching from that first Little Loop practice to the varsity team, where Gene Tundo has won 150 games in 18 years. And there is the tradition that comes with all that winning.
Or, you could put it like senior Ben Holmes did:
"I think we're just bred to be football players out here in Orchard Park."
Tundo, who has been part of the program for 32 years, points to coaches he worked under prior to taking over, like Tony Policare, Dan Elvin and Bruce Frazier.
"I learned football from great coaches," said Tundo, who held just about every positional coaching job under those coaches. "A lot of stuff we do I stole from them. I give them a lot of credit. I worked with different guys in different areas and it allowed me to learn the whole game. I paid attention to the things that make you win. They were great coaches, very detail-oriented guys.
"I wanted to make sure that they could be proud that OP football was in good hands and we carried that tradition on. We had guys like [future pro players] Jim Burt, [Craig] Wolfley and Larry Pfohl [many know him as professional wrestler Lex Luger]. There has just been so much tradition."
That's why Tundo says he tries to "research every part of football that's out there."
"We've tried to stay a step ahead of everybody, strategically, game-by-game and year-by-year. And we do what our players can do.
"It's about the kids in the long run. The kids have been great. It's the community, the Little Loop, the coaching, everything goes hand in hand."
When those Little Loopers start learning their playbook, they'll soon be using similar terminology to what is used throughout every level of the program.
"It's the amount of athletes that come through the school, the athletic program, the excellence that they expect," said Jantzi. "The feeder programs, the offseason conditioning, it's about everyone being on the same page."
Canisius coach Rich Robbins is in his second year as head coach but his sixth with the program. For the last several seasons, Canisius and Orchard Park have paired up for a scrimmage.
"It's the size of the district, the feeder program of having a middle school that's running the same plays," Robbins said. "I get kids at Canisius in ninth grade, and they say, ‘Oh, football, I'll try that.' They've got excellent coaches from Gene on down."
All the success has made it clear what the expectations are for OP football.
"We are known around the town, and all of the kids want to be part of it — so we just reload," said senior lineman Mike Senn. "We have people coming up, we have good coaches on lower levels getting us prepared for varsity. Once you start playing, the coaches let you know that's what's expected of you. The town expects it, our fans expect it and we expect it from ourselves."
Last year's Quakers had all the typical qualities of an OP team — big, fast, skilled, deep — and those ran through every aspect of the game. There was also a palpable cohesiveness unique to the team, a rare combination of talent and teamwork.
Does this year's team have that kind of pedigree? OP kicks off Saturday at Lockport.
Holmes, who has moved from receiver to quarterback, notes that he's part of a Class of 2013 that hasn't lost a football game since it was playing modified.
And Senn makes it clear that this year's group is ready to step into the void left by the graduation of several All-WNY names from last year.
"Last year's over, it's a new year now," Senn said. "I can guarantee you that they'll know our names."