Imagine you had a time machine and could move one high school football game this season back to, say, the first or second week of last December. ¶ That would be the only way this season’s Canisius Crusaders versus Jamestown Red Raiders nonleague, heavyweight showdown in Week Four at Jamestown’s Strider Field could possibly be better than it already is.
• The last two Buffalo News Players of the Year, running back Qadree Ollison of Canisius (2012) and quarterback Jake Sisson of Jamestown (2013), would still be eligible to participate in the dream matchup between last year’s News Large School co-No. 1s.
• Fans would be able to find out if a stingy Canisius defense that yielded just one touchdown all year en route to its second straight Monsignor Martin Association playoff championship would be able to shut down a high-powered Jamestown offense that averaged 52.4 points per game en route to winning the Section VI Class AA crown.
• Would Sisson be able to complete passes all over the field with ease to first-team All-Western New York receivers Stephen Carlson and Zack Panebianco?
• Would a Crusaders defense led by All-WNY pick Brad Zaffram along with fellow senior linebackers James Thomas and Jerome Brundidge stymie the Red Raiders in their tracks much the same way they limited eventual state public schools Class AA champion Aquinas of Rochester to just three points – in a 3-0 loss?
• Would Canisius’ all-time leading rusher Ollison (4,147 yards, third most in Monsignor Martin Association history) be able to ground and pound Jamestown’s defense into submission?
“That’d be pretty cool,” Jamestown coach Tom Langworthy chuckled when asked about a one-time only scenario of dressing Ollison and Sisson for this dream game.
Of course, neither team can do that, but that’s OK. There’s still plenty of talent on both teams, so much that when Canisius visits Jamestown at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 26 in what qualifies as the game of the decade locally, college scouts should be asked to pay double the price of admission. They’re bound to return to their respective schools with a list of players to keep tabs on during the season.
The contest is believed to be the first featuring the reigning Section VI Class AA and Monsignor Martin Association champions since Week One of 1998, when St. Joe’s defeated Orchard Park, 31-20. Those two teams also played each other in 1997 under the same circumstances, with the Quakers winning that Week Eight matchup, 34-21.
“We both lost some guys but we both return some All-Western New York-caliber players,” Canisius coach Rich Robbins said. “It would’ve just been interesting to kind of match up” with last year’s players “and see how that goes, but they’ve got Carlson and Panebianco and a lot of good players back down there.
“I know Coach Langworthy likes his group. He wouldn’t have taken the game if he didn’t expect to compete. We’ve got (TJ) Wheatley and Zaffram and (Josh) Huffman and some of our All-WNY-type guys back. I still think the talent level is pretty high. We still expect it to be a hell of a game down there.”
He’s not the only one.
Unlike all other sports where Western New York’s top private and public school teams regularly find ways to play each other, the locals haven’t always gotten what they’ve wanted during football season. Public schools, for the most part, haven’t scheduled these type of games.
For at least one year, that has changed.
“People in Western New York have been asking for matchups like this for a long time,” Section VI football chairman Ken Stoldt said. “Canisius, the schedule they play year in and year out, they understand what good competition is all about and they know how important it is to succeed. I give credit for Tom Langworthy for doing the same thing. ... It’s a win-win for everybody.”
Besides Canisius-Jamestown, other notable nonleaguers this season involving MMA and public school teams include St. Francis hosting South Park (Sept. 13) and Alden (Sept. 20), St. Joe’s welcoming Clarence on Sept. 13 and Bishop Timon-St. Jude taking on Riverside on Sept. 26.
Let’s keep in mind that from 2003-07, none of the large public or private schools scheduled each other for a nonleague game. Canisius and Jamestown did play each other in 2009 when both were trying to climb the mountain of respectability, with the Crusaders winning, 28-2, at the Stransky Complex.
Could this lead to more private-public games being scheduled down the road, or even a football event mirrored after the ECIC-MMA Challenge?
“People like these matchups,” Stoldt said. “I hope to see it more down the road.”
“It’s possible,” Langworthy said. “More people are open to it than in the past, but I don’t want coaches to feel pressure to do it because Jamestown is doing it. Personally, I feel” the game “can help us get better. … But in no way am I trying to influence what other coaches do with their programs.”
Langworthy scheduled the game because he is trying to give his program the best chance possible to win a state championship. Jamestown’s other nonleague game is no cupcake either as the Red Raiders travel to Amherst on Saturday to face perennial Section VI Class A power Sweet Home.
“We want to make sure we’re always challenging ourselves and pushing ourselves to take the next step,” Langworthy said. “I think it tells our players that even though we were Section VI champions, the difference between winning and losing that Aquinas game” at the Far West Regionals “was just a few plays. … I think it prepares us for the playoffs and is a tool to help us get better.”
“It is a lot of risk for us because we’re the private school – we should be able to do this and that,” said Robbins, who suggested playing a nonleague game to Langworthy while both were waiting in line to receive an award at Dick Gallagher’s football banquet last December. “I think it’s smart on their end because they want to beat Aquinas. If you want to do that, playing a team like Canisius is going to give you a good look. We practice for that type of an opponent in the playoffs.
“But for us, I thought it was just a way to further high school football in Western New York. I think these are the types of matchups that everybody wants to see.”
Even though Jamestown is 90 minutes away from Canisius, the Buffalo school is thrilled it gets to play a nonleaguer in the same state. It not only gives Crusaders fans a real shot at driving to the game to watch the blue and gold, it also saves on the football program’s travel budget since it’s not an overnight road trip.
“We have three Ohio teams on the schedule,” Robbins said. “It’s nice to not have to go to Ohio again” for a game. “We like taking those trips, but it gets really expensive for your program with buses and hotel costs. … It was great for us to get a game against Section VI.”
There is a benefit for Canisius playing the Ohio teams on the road, Robbins said. Those games are scouted quite heavily. If a scout notices a Canisius player, he is going to have to keep tabs on him, which could open the door to others who may have gone unnoticed in the area.
Wheatley, the son of former Michigan star, NFL running back and current Buffalo Bills assistant Tyrone, should have an entourage of major Division I scouts at most of his games this season, including the one at Strider Field. He’s still trying to choose between Alabama, Michigan, Miami (Fla.), USC and UCLA. With all the scouts coming to see Wheatley, there’s a chance someone else on the field could get noticed.
Besides Panebianco (a rare All-WNY first-teamer in football and basketball last year) and Carlson (offers from Alabama-Birmingham and Albany), Jamestown’s offensive and defensive lines will be anchored by a returning first team All-WNY pick in senior Joe Mistretta.
He’ll likely get tangled up on more than one occasion with Wheatley, a first team All-WNY defensive lineman who grew an inch, added about 10 pounds and now goes 6-foot-7, 260. If not Wheatley, Mistretta likely will have his hands full with middle linebacker Zaffram, a 6-2, 225-pounder with Division I suitors. Defensive back Huffman was a second team All-WNY pick, and the Crusaders’ fourth-year varsity starter already has an offer from Albany. Canisius kicker Michael Tarbutt has received interest from Connecticut, Syracuse and Auburn. Division I schools have looked at linemen Chris Gangarossa and Mike Kennefick.
Jamestown, which returns 15 starters from last season, has other talents on its lines. Key returnees include Jacis Blake, a three-year starter at left tackle, and Damien Jackson at right tackle. Both can also play defense along with Nate Vazquez and Kevin Mosely.
“It’s going to be a great, competitive game,” Panebianco said. “It’s something people have waited a long time for.”
They’ll have to wait a little longer as both teams’ schedules are dotted with brutally tough opponents that would make them pay the price if they overlooked them. While Jamestown is at Sweet Home, Canisius opens at home against Section V’s McQuaid before hosting powerful Aquinas and playing at Ohio’s Walsh Jesuit.
Jamestown is trying to rework its offensive identity now that Sisson has moved on to Division II Edinboro, while it looks like it’ll be a team effort for the Crusaders to replace Ollison, who now plays for Pittsburgh. Mitch Thomas, Solomon Renfro and Cleveland Hill transfer A.J. Satcher should all see time in the Canisius backfield.
Western New York has waited years to see its top public school and private school champion to face each other on the field once again. Three weeks really isn’t that far away.
“It’s a great opportunity to be playing to see who is the best team,” Mitch Thomas said.
Public and private schools settling it on the field. Imagine that.