Thursday August 29, 2013 | By:Michael J. Petro | Sports
GO GET ‘EM — Senior running back Jovanni Klimowicz takes off with the ball during Lake Shore’s Thursday practice. The Eagles began varsity practice with approximately 22 players, but with an insurgence of some youth, may wind up with about 25 – 27, for the start of the regular season on Friday, Sept. 6. Photos by Michael Petro.
OFF AND RUNNING — Junior Tony Cappola returns a punt in a drill, during the first week of practices for Eden on Aug. 22. The Raiders are returning much of last year’s division-title winning team, but will once again battle against low numbers. Combining one day with North Collins for football may help with that issue. Photos by Michael Petro.
Go to the first day of football practice at nearly any of Western New York’s large schools like Orchard Park and Clarence or mid-level size schools with a big-time football reputation like Alden or Depew, and numbers are almost never an issue.
Then visit schools with dwindling enrollments, a common theme around Western New York, or places where programs haven’t enjoyed as much success, during recent seasons, and there is a much different story to be told.
The number of players participating in the sport are at very low numbers for some programs around Western New York.
This is one of the reasons that it has been commonplace to see two districts’ joining forces, to play football together. In this season alone, there will be four new co-op teams fielded in Section VI. A number of other programs, including all of the Buffalo City Schools fielding Section VI teams, have gone to a co-op system during the past several years, so their football programs can survive.
Both Lake Shore and Eden find themselves approaching the season with approximately 25 or fewer players. Lake Shore has a bit of a cushion, with 28 or so junior varsity players, but will field a very young team this year, while Eden is not short on talent, but must again do all it can to stay healthy, so that a potentially big season does not become derailed by a lack of numbers.
Lake Shore will be one of the smaller teams in Class A, coming off a one-win season in 2012. Under first-year Head Coach Drew Takacs, the Eagles’ future is bright, with a highly-touted sophomore class, but this year, it will be a challenge fielding a team with enough depth, without bringing up players not yet ready for the varsity level.
“The numbers are what we’re a little concerned about,” said Takacs, who takes over a program that has seen a decline in wins and player participation, during the past few seasons. “We’ll have a hard time if someone goes down. We’re already taking from the junior varsity, as it is.”
Under Chuck Tilley, Eden has been to the playoffs the past four seasons; included in that are two division titles and a trip to Ralph Wilson Stadium, but the Raiders’ numbers remain low.
While slightly better off than the two years previous, going from 21 to 24 players provides enough bodies for a full practice, but still does not allow for much hitting, in an attempt to avoid injury on a thin roster.
Staying injury-free is important, because the junior varsity is even smaller, with a roster of about 20 players, so there will be little opportunity to bring anyone up, during the season.
“Just like many high school football teams, we’re one or two injuries away from a disaster, but with our case, we’re also one or two away from a forfeit,” said Tilley, Eden’s head coach. “It’s not a matter of talent; it’s a matter of not having enough bodies.”
East Aurora, which is being joined by Holland this year, had to forfeit a game last fall, during a 1 – 6 regular season. The program will field a larger varsity team, along with having nearly 50 players try out for the junior varsity, with the insurgence of a school that has never played football before.
At times, Eden will be going up against opponents with sidelines filled with players, while its section of the field remains on the lighter side.
“It’s tough for an Eden to play against a Depew,” Tilley noted. “They’re more like [their rival] Lancaster [of Class AA]. I mean, they can put 50 — 60 kids on the field.”
Tilley said that he believes the most ideal situation would be fielding a co-op team with North Collins, a high school 8 – 10 minutes down the road on Route 62, but a proposed plan to do so was squashed last school year.
“I want it to happen,” Tilley said, about creating a co-op football team with North Collins. “I think it would be good for the football program here, but I also think it would be good to give kids opportunities. If you extend an open invitation and a half a dozen kids come out, it’s a positive thing for us and those kids.”
North Collins fields only a soccer team during the fall; that program has won 26 sectional titles and is the premier power in Section VI Class D, which has whittled down in the sport to just three teams. Some of the other Class D regulars have prioritized fielding a football team, whether it be on their own or in a co-op scenario.
During the past few years, small schools that have never fielded football teams have given it a try, at the co-op level. Holland is one of those schools. Last year, Lyndonville combined with Medina. Both East Aurora and Medina remain Class B teams like Eden would have, even with North Collins. The Raiders were four students away from the cutoff of the B and C classification.
“You’re seeing it everywhere, with smaller schools,” Tilley said. “I can go on and on” about all of the programs that have combined. “In order to survive with the smaller schools, you’re going to have to see that more and more. There are schools that had football and dropped it, because they didn’t have the manpower.”
Tilley said that he does not want to worry about becoming one of those schools, in future years. Eden should drop to Class C next year, unless the BED numbers change, as a reflection of the numbers all around the state, and keep the Raiders in B.
For now, coaches like Tilley and Takacs can do only so much with a problem they have little control over. What they can control is the culture instilled to the players in their program.
Tilley, who has been described as a firm but fair leader, has accomplished that goal in Eden; Takacs is looking to follow suit, by pushing a character initiative with his players. It has worked so far, at the Eagles’ practices.
“I want them to play with heart,” Takacs said. “I know we have low numbers, but I want them showing up ready, every day. Whether they’re on the offense or defense or the scout team, the starters and scout players are helping each other out. They’re showing a lot of character.”
Most Western New York high school football teams will hit the field against an opponent for the first time in 2013 on “Scrimmage Saturday” (Aug. 31).
Class AA semifinalist Frontier is the only team among locals to host a scrimmage this weekend when the Falcons welcome in Iroquois and Lackawanna at 10 a.m. The three teams have all met for the preseason scrimmage for much of the past decade, with Frontier now hosting in consecutive seasons.
St. Francis will be among six teams getting into action for the first time against an opponent when the Red Raiders join Lancaster, Sweet Home, Grand Island and Niagara Wheatfield at Lockport’s Emmet Belknap Intermediate School starting 9 a.m.
Hamburg will travel down to Jamestown’s Strider Field, along with East Aurora and Fredonia, for a scrimmage at 10 a.m. Also at that time, Lake Shore, along with St. Mary’s and JFK, will be at Maryvale.
Later in the day, Eden will get its scrimmage kicked off at Amherst, along with Kenmore East and West Seneca West, at 5 p.m.