It is perhaps the first commandment of football: Run the ball.
To do so, you need a running back, and you need someone for him to run behind. It is football’s version of the chicken-or-the-egg.
This year, Canisius had both.
The Crusaders went 11-0 to win the Monsignor Martin Association championship, becoming the first Monsignor Martin large school to go undefeated in 14 years. There were two powerful pillars to that perfect season – senior two-way lineman Ryan Hunter and junior running back Qadree Ollison – and for that they are both being named The Buffalo News Player of the Year.
The Canisius duo – who were selected for the award over Alden senior Corey Barczykowski, Lockport senior James Chambers, Orchard Park senior Michael Senn and West Seneca East senior Andy Smigiera – are part of the 55th All-Western New York football team, selected by The News and longtime contributor Dick Gallagher in consultation with area coaches and officials.
The 35th edition of the Player of the Year award marks only the fourth time, and the second in the last 20 years, that The News has honored two players.
Cardinal O’Hara teammates Reggie Garner and Jackie Feggans were both named Player of the Year in 2007. Anthony Scott of Grand Island and Teddy McDuffie of Grover Cleveland shared the award in 1992. Grand Island’s Cliff Scott (Anthony’s older brother) and West Seneca East’s Kevin Mason shared it in 1989.
In 1978, the second year of the award, The News named two captains of its All-WNY team: Carl Chase of Canisius (offense) and Alan Copeland of Lancaster (defense). That was the only other time that a Canisius player earned the top player honor.
There was plenty of other history set by this year’s Canisius team, including most wins and the school’s first unbeaten season since 1976. It was the first time since St. Joe’s went 10-0 in 1998 that a Monsignor Martin large school went undefeated, a rare achievement due to the Catholic schools’ tendency to play top-notch out-of-area teams. Among Canisius’ impressive victories were wins at Walsh Jesuit of Ohio and over Section V (Rochester area) Class AA champion Aquinas.
There is also an entire record-breaking chapter that can be filed under “Q.”
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Ollison, who is known to many simply by the first letter of his first name, ran for a school-record 1,876 yards this season on 240 carries. The Niagara Falls native’s 25 rushing touchdowns were a school record, as were his 26 total touchdowns (Ollison surpassed the totals set last year by Mercer Timmis: 1,560 yards, 22 rushing TDs, 24 total TDs).
With career totals of 2,679 yards and 35 total touchdowns, the junior is also now just 401 yards and four touchdowns away from the Canisius records in both of those categories. Ollison showed he could deliver a hard hit on defense as well, although his playing time was understandably limited there.
Ollison is not only quick to the hole, he is even quicker to sidestep tacklers, and he is especially good at pounding past defenders, especially late in the game.
The finalist for the Connolly Cup had performances that epitomized his season in every major contest, gaining strength late in the game when his team needed it most, then brilliantly closing out the year.
In a 26-14 victory at Bishop Timon-St. Jude in Week Eight, he had 206 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries, including a game-clinching 46-yard score in the final minutes in which he ran out of a defender’s grasp to reach the secondary.
In a 28-21 win at St. Joe’s in Week Nine, he ran for a school-record 344 yards and four touchdowns on 39 carries (including 254 yards in the second half).
In a 44-20 semifinal victory against St. Francis it was an 18-carry, two-touchdown, 230-yard performance that gave him the Crusaders’ single-season rushing record. In the championship game, he ran 38 times for three touchdowns and 195 hard-earned yards in a 28-20 win over Timon.
“Most of that stuff comes with all of the offseason and conditioning work that I did,” Ollison said. “So in the fourth quarter, I wouldn’t be tired. Also, it’s like a ‘killer instinct’ attitude – wanting to finish a team off.”
And when Ollison ran, the 6-foot-5, 315-pound Hunter was most often pushing bodies out of the way to clear his path, not just by virtue of his tremendous strength, but his outstanding footwork.
Canisius coach Rich Robbins estimated that 85 percent of Canisius’ running plays had Hunter involved in opening the holes.
“It might have been in different formations, but we were running to his side,” Robbins said. “And it was no mystery, if we needed a yard [on fourth and 1], we were running behind big No. 68.”
Said Ollison: “Ryan is a great lineman. He’s one of the few linemen in our league over 300 pounds, he’s really strong and really big. And he is really athletic. We’d use him on counter plays and he was really fast getting out and up into the hole.”
Hunter – who also did not surrender a sack all season – was also a major force on defense. He constantly pushed his way into the opposition’s backfield despite constant double- or triple-teams. In Canisius’ 3-4 defense, he helped the Crusaders control the opposing line so his linebacker teammates could make stops. He made plays (54 tackles) despite at least two linemen trying to stop him. His pressure also led to lanes disappearing for running backs and for hurried throws by quarterbacks into Canisius’ ball-hawking secondary (22 interceptions).
In the championship game against Timon, Hunter made his presence felt in various ways, including blocking an extra-point attempt and batting a pass that would be intercepted by the Crusaders.
Robbins noted that Hunter did his two-way work while only taking off about five to seven plays per game.
Like Ollison, Hunter also credited conditioning under coach Robbins as a major factor in his development. The native of Canada relocated from his home in North Bay, Ont. (a 300-mile drive north of Buffalo) to Western New York prior to his junior season. He was housed by a Buffalo family that had sons at Canisius.
When Hunter first arrived at Canisius, he thought his size would be enough for him to succeed here so he could pursue his dream of playing in the NFL and his more immediate goal of earning a Division I scholarship.
During his first training camp, however, the reality of American football delivered quite the head-slap.
“Last year was a rude awakening,” said Hunter, who is fluent in both French and English. “Honestly I thought I would come in and be a dominant force on the offensive line, but it really opened up my eyes that I had to work a lot harder.
“After the season [coach Robbins] told me I needed to work my butt off and get into shape. That was my motivation. I worked hard, ran a couple of miles a day to make sure I would play as much as possible and be as dominant as possible on both sides of the ball.”
Last year’s performance, and his offseason work, earned a scholarship offer from Bowling Green, where he is verbally committed. He is the only player in Western New York committed to an FBS program.
With the improvement in Hunter’s physique and his stellar senior season, there is a good chance other programs will offer him scholarships before football’s National Signing Day in February.
Hunter said he is taking things “one day at a time,” saying he has “no intentions of de-committing from Bowling Green,” but also that his coaches are sending out his tapes and that “we’ll see what happens.” (Ollison, meanwhile, is already getting attention from Big East and Mid-American Conference schools.)
Hunter not only worked at improving his training, he became a team leader on and off the field and a few weeks ago, coaches named him Canisius’ Team MVP.
“On the field, he is a 6-foot-5, 315-pound, one-man wrecking crew,” said Robbins.“But also, his work ethic in practice and his approach to our goals was contagious. He would always remind the team each week of the score of the 2011 game of the opponent we were about to play. He made sure underclassmen knew what the mission was and that they worked hard every day to help our seniors and our team reach new heights.
“Our physical attitude and approach was keyed by Ryan and his love of punishing opponents. He loves to hit and showed that on ‘O’ and ‘D.’ He was our team MVP because of what he did for our offense, defense and our team overall. Without Ryan, 11-0 would not have been possible.”