Aug 28, 2013 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
As a high school senior in 2001, Damien Rhodes, with his big-play ability, pushed Fayetteville-Manlius to a Section III Class AA championship.
Twelve long years later, the Hornets are still looking for its next sectional crown – and now Rhodes, 28, is the section’s youngest varsity football head coach, charged with continuing F-M’s recent success, but pushing it just a step or two further.
In seven of the 11 years since that ’01 title, F-M has at least reached the sectional semifinals. A season ago, even after a season-ending knee injury to top wide receiver Austin Perez, F-M got back to the semifinals, only to drop a 38-36 classic to Baldwinsville.
To get all the way to the top, said Rhodes, he’s asked his players to “focus on the things we can control on a daily basis, and then let things fall where they may. They’re getting better every day and have a nice singular focus.”
The transition from former head coach Paul Muench to Rhodes at the helm is not the only one. Perez, quarterback Wolfgang Shafer, running backs Sean Bright and Ryan Greer, along with linemen Matt McDonough and Josh Pulver, graduated among the offensive starters.
At least the Hornets have a successor to Shafer in place. Junior Jake Wittig takes over at quarterback, having already seen plenty of action as a freshman and sophomore. Back then, he was a change of pace when Shafer went off the field. Now, Wittig will run the whole show.
Wittig is used to such responsibility as a two-year starting point guard on F-M’s varsity basketball team, where he’s one of the area’s best. As to football, Rhodes said that Wittig has done more than just work on mechanics and game understanding.
“Jake’s learning to be a great leader through his actions on and off the field,” said Rhodes.
One thing that Wittig doesn’t need to worry about is a dearth of talent at the skill positions. F-M has plenty of backs and receivers that could step into starring roles this fall.
Senior Jake Pulver and sophomore Zaire Ashley give the Hornets a pair of imposing runners. Pulver (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) and Ashley (6-3, 220 pounds) both have the power to break through opposing tacklers and the speed to run away in the open field. Nate Groesbeck adds depth at tailback.
Perez, before his knee injury, was a dominant receiver, and while no one F-M player might match his ability, the likes of Bruce Williams and Jack Wilson can match Perez’s production, while 6-foot-4 senior Tim Byrnes could cause real match-up problems as a receiver or tight end.
For all of F-M’s skill potential, its real strength could be on the line, where there’s plenty of proven players on hand. Anchored by senior center Matt Stegemann, the front five includes senior Chris Dobrzynski and junior Jake Okun at guard, plus 6-7, 270-pound junior Cormac Bettinger and 280-pound senior Rich Zogby at tackle.
“At any level of football, it’s tough to win if you don’t have a dominant line,” said Rhodes. “We have experience, but we continue to gel and get better. We have a chance to have a really solid front.”
Kyle Keeney, Rhodes’ teammate from Pop Warner football right through F-M’s 2001 sectional title run, takes over as defensive coordinator, and Rhodes said their long-time friendship helps them work together well, with Keeney almost serving as a right-hand man to Rhodes.
Keeney’s biggest task might be replacing two dominant defensive linemen, as T.J. Wheatley transferred to Buffalo’s Canisius High School and Nate Kadah graduated. On F-M’s 4-3 front, Zogby, Byrnes, Stegemann and Chris Bortel will fit into the line rotation.
Having a great linebacker corps eases the burden up front. Between Pulver and Ashley, F-M has a pair of superb athletes that complement each other and forces offenses to deal with them straight-up, rather than having double teams. Josh Loeffler and Kyle Bronson could emerge as stars here, too.
Wittig started last fall as a defensive back, but might not need to play every snap since Wilson returns at safety, while Jeff Martin and Luke Krizman line up at cornerback. What is a sure thing is that Wittig will handle kicking duties, as he missed just one extra point in 2012.
As if to intensify the spotlight, F-M opens Friday against Schenectady in the Carrier Dome, where Rhodes spent his college career at Syracuse University from 2002 to 2005, followed by a televised Sept. 12 home opener against West Genesee and a Sept. 20 playoff rematch with Baldwinsville.
But as Rhodes put it, “we put pressure on ourselves every single day.” He said that F-M simply needs to do what it has done in recent years and keep putting itself in a position to win a championship, and then perhaps catch that break or two that has proved so elusive since Rhodes was in pads and a uniform, sprinting toward the end zone.