Aug 21, 2012 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
What many would consider a landmark campaign is, to the current members of the Chittenango football team, a starting point to larger possibilities ahead.
The Bears, in 2011, claimed its first Section III championship in 12 years, and then advanced to the state semifinals, giving a scare to two-time defending state champion Hornell before a 35-27 defeat as the Red Raiders went on to a state three-peat.
Yet as much as that Chittenango team accomplished, head coach Jack Hayes said that what was left undone drives the 2012 version of the Bears.
“It sets the bar a lot higher,” he said. “When you get as far as we did, it makes you want to work as hard as you possibly can to finish the deal. That’s the goal, and it’s attainable.”
So with that ultimate prize in mind, Chittenango had heavy participation in off-season strength and conditioning programs, along with a seven-on-seven passing league during the summer.
When practices opened Aug. 13, the Bears had nearly 40 players on its varsity roster and more than 45 on the JV side, increased numbers that, said Hayes, are a direct result of the enthusiasm generated by last fall’s efforts.
Unlike many high-school football teams that generate large amounts of success, the Bears were not massively affected by graduation. Six starters return on both sides of the ball, including the entire offensive backfield and all five linebackers on the defensive side.
Chittenango is a run-oriented attack, for good reason. Combined, quarterback Devin Phelps, tailback Kyle Zimmer and fullback Joe Gilona gained more than 2,500 yards in 2011, and all of them are back to run wild again.
Phelps, at 5-foot-9 and 140 pounds, is far smaller than the average starting QB in the high-school ranks, but he makes up for it with speed and daring that makes him totally unpredictable to opposing defenses.
“He’s got that ‘it’ factor,” said Hayes. “He’s fast, quick and can see the whole field. He’s a lot of fun to watch, and coach.”
Gilona has bulked up to 195 pounds and might be even tougher to tackle than last fall, when he averaged more than eight yards per carry. Zimmer has more speed and, like Phelps, can get outside, forcing defenders to chase him.
When the Bears have to throw it, Phelps will look for brothers Matt and Josh Cretaro, who succeed Devin Christopher and Brad Phelps at the wide receiver spots. Steve Billington, the tight end, is also a first-rate kicker, having nailed a pair of field goals in that state semifinal against Hornell.
Two starters – tackle Aaron Jones and guard Joe Guignard – return on the offensive line. Much will hinge on 6-foot-6, 285-pound Brett Buyea, who mans the other tackle spot (where 300-pounder Nathan Fox was a year ago) as guard Jon Simmons (250 pounds) and guard Casey Placito (240 pounds) round out a big front five.
Defensively, Chittenango goes with a 3-5 look, and for good reason, since all five linebackers return, anchored in the middle by Jones. At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, Jones dominated in 2011, earning first-team All-State honors, and top schools like Connecticut and the University at Buffalo are looking at him.
“He loves playing football,” said Hayes. “He wants to make his presence known on the field, and he’s definitely going to play at the next level.”
Billington and Gilona play at the linebacker spots flanking Jones, while Zimmer and Connor Mills man the outside spots. Their experience, and talent, allows the defensive line to rotate, with Brian Perriello, Mitch Mahofsky and 305-pound Cody Rupert joined by Guignard and Placito. Phelps, at safety, anchors a secondary with the Cretaro brothers taking over at cornerback.
Chittenango has just three home games, including the Aug. 31 curtain-raiser against Solvay. Just one other Class B West side – Homer – visits, on Sept. 21, and the Oct. 12 regular-season finale at Cortland could prove important.
Nothing, though, is stemming the high expectations in Bear Country. Hayes said that, throughout the off-season, he has received inquiries wherever he has gone about the upcoming season, and what it might hold, but adds that his team cannot afford complacency.
“We have to be focused,” said Hayes. “Our players see the big picture, but none of that will happen unless they show up every single week.”