Every high school program loses players from year to year. There’s graduation, injuries, players moving out of town, some deciding not to play, and some will transfer.
And every season, Sweet Home has been one of the best teams in Western New York. It has won six straight Section VI Class A championships, claiming two state titles over that time. Last year its season ended with a loss in the state championship game.
So as the Panthers hit the football field for the first time in 2013, it was business as usual for head coach John Faller and his staff despite Sweet Home having been on the other side of one of the most notable transfers in the recent history of Western New York high school football — All-Western New York linebacker Brad Zaffram to Canisius.
“There’s not much for me to say there,” said Faller, adding that there have been years where “I didn’t have some guys who were missed. Day-Day,” 2008 All-WNY first-teamer DeShanaro Morris, “got hurt his senior year, and the kids answered the call there. You know what, you move on just like everybody else.”
Zaffram was a rarity in that he attained All-WNY first-team status as a sophomore.
“It’s tough losing a player like Brad, but we got over it,” senior lineman John Navarro said. “We still have a lot of good players. It’s just one player. You need 11 players on the field.”
Faller pointed to the consistency of his coaching staff as a reason why Sweet Home is able to reload every year.
“Our coaching staff has stayed together over the last five or six years,” said Faller, who enters his 27th year coaching the Panthers. “We can find our answers and know what we’re looking for a lot sooner. That helps out a lot. That saves a lot of time. If you’re changing a coaching staff every year, it’s hard to get cohesiveness together and that’s one thing we don’t have to worry about.”
Zaffram said his transfer from one Western New York power to another has gone smoothly.
“They welcomed me in,” he said. “There were no problems. It was pretty easy once I got to know all of them. Since we have so many transfers, we’re all equal that way – it’s just easy. We have the same experience.”
What has been his biggest adjustment?
“The offseason work, because we do like four or five days a week – we’re always in the weight room or on the field. It’s really hard work – they always talk about how that hard work will get us to where we’re trying to get to. … I’ve just got to learn the playbook. The toughest thing is probably the complicated plays.”
When Zaffram was asked about Canisius’ possibilities this season, the pronoun he used signified which team he plays for now.
“I feel like the sky’s the limit,” he said. “We can win another championship.”
Canisius coaches were pleasantly surprised to learn this morning that standout junior transfer TJ Wheatley, who has eight Division I scholarship offers, including Alabama and Penn State, has been cleared for practice.
Coaches expected Wheatley to be out with what they described – in National Hockey League terms – as an “upper-body injury” that may have kept him out until Canisius’ opener at Rochester’s McQuaid on Sept. 6. However, Wheatley ended up doing some drills Monday morning and is expected to participate fully today.
“It’s great news. Initially we thought it was a fracture, and I guess it’s not a fracture,” said Canisius coach Rich Robbins. “He actually practiced a bit this morning. We’re hopeful now that the time frame has moved up and we’ll be able to get him back a lot sooner.”
Orchard Park coach Gene Tundo said there are three quarterbacks vying for that role following the graduation of Ben Holmes – senior Dave Hollins (son of the former Quaker great who came out for football after two years away), junior Kevin Goltz (who saw action last season when Holmes was injured) and freshman Dylan Janka.
“We’ve never had a player that young play quarterback for us,” Tundo said of Janka, “but Dylan’s outworked everybody in Western New York at that position. He goes to camps, he works hard, throws a great ball, he studies with the best people in the game. We have three great candidates and I’m excited to see them just play it out.”
Like Sweet Home, Orchard Park looks to continue what seems like an annual trip a few miles away to Ralph Wilson Stadium for the Section VI Class AA finals (they’ve been there 11 of the last 12 years). OP won the 2011 state title and lost in last year’s final.
“The big thing is that our offensive line is back, five out of six guys are back, including our tight end, so that’s an advantage for us,” said Tundo. “The new guys coming in, we either brought them up last year, or they are some pretty experienced players.
“I’m looking forward to a great year. I told the guys that this is my 34th year of coaching, and I’m as excited as any year.”
At Alden, one leader from recent years has departed. Rob Currin has taken over for former coach Dick Diminuco, who is now the quarterbacks coach at Brockport State, but third-year starting quarterback Brian Stoldt remains.
“I don’t know if the motivation could get any higher, honestly,” said the senior, whose Bulldogs have won three straight Section VI Class B championships, losing twice in the Far West Regionals and last year in the state semifinals. “We’ve been so close [to a state title] and we’re just really ready to knock that door down and make it happen, and we’ve been really close, and we’ve just got to keep working hard.”
News Sports Reporter Aaron Mansfield contributed to this story.