In 38 years of coaching, Alden coach Dick Diminuco has never seen a leader like junior quarterback Brian Stoldt.
"He is without question the greatest leader I've been around," Diminuco said. "I can't imagine someone not loving the kid. He's a kid everybody pulls for."
Stoldt said he thinks about Alden's last game no fewer than 20 times a day.
The two past years, the Bulldogs have fallen prey to a well-oiled machine: a Hornell team that has won three consecutive New York State Class B championships. Both meetings took place at the Far West Regionals, and both ended in heartbreaking fashion for Alden.
There's something motivational about the sting of defeat. After a hard-fought 21-14 loss in 2010 and a 20-14 overtime loss last year (a game Alden seemed to have in hand in the fourth quarter), the coach/quarterback duo is as driven as ever.
"We were so close to winning it," said Stoldt, who started last year as a sophomore. "We're ready to go. We want to get back there and win it this time."
The day of the Bulldogs' first practice, which started at 9:15 a.m., Diminuco woke up at 4:30 because he was so excited
"I'm an old guy and I've been coaching a long time, and I still remember [last year's loss to Hornell]," he said. "I hope it serves as a focus for the kids. I hope it gives us a bit of incentive."
The Bulldogs, who finished 10-1, led Hornell 14-6 with less than two minutes to play in Rochester, but the Red Raiders scored and converted a two-point conversion with 1:37 remaining before taking the game in overtime.
That was in November. Stoldt was still a youngster.
"I'm really looking forward to this year because I know the system," Stoldt said. "I've got a year under my belt. I'm comfortable with the guys. There's no more trying to prove something to your teammates. You're the leader."
Stoldt rewarded Diminuco's faith when the inexperienced QB led the Bulldogs to a Section VI title over Depew at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The coach has been around quite a few players. He knows when he's found a special one.
"I can't say enough about him as a young man most of all," Diminuco said. "He's a great student, great teammate, terrific person."
Diminuco said he feels solid about his team's core, but the squad isn't as deep as it has been the past two years.
Alden lost star graduates at wide receiver (Eric Roth), offensive line (Josh Chase) and linebacker (Ryan Sosnowski). Stoldt will shoulder a heavy burden.
"If something should ever happen to Brian, knock on wood, we'd have a difficult time," Diminuco said.
Stoldt said he thinks one part of the team will pack a big surprise: its defensive front seven, though it's composed of mostly inexperienced players.
One thing is for certain: every player, coach and fan who returns from last year hasn't forgotten about that loss.
"It's very motivating," Stoldt said. "We were so close to a state title. This year in the offseason we've worked very hard to get back. Our main goal this year is to win the state title. Section VI, it's going to be a tough league and we've got to take it one game at a time."
Stoldt joined his teammates in weightlifting during the summer, and since last season ended the team's captains have participated in "captain's workouts" three to four days a week.
"This is a team that's extremely close together," he said. "We have played together our whole lives."
Stoldt and his comrades open Friday at home against Barker/Roy-Hart.
After the way last year's postseason ended, Stoldt is even more determined to lead the Bulldogs to a triumphant finish.
"I think we could be right there with those teams [from the past two years]," Stoldt said. "As long as we keep working hard and put in the time, I think we can be just as good if not better."