On the warm Monday morning of Aug. 19, Canisius High School football coach Rich Robbins addressed his team before its first practice in a cozy, cement-walled team room in the basement of the Delaware Avenue building the school has occupied for nearly 70 years. It had been an unprecedented offseason for a team that had already done unprecedented things. Canisius went undefeated for the first time since 1976 and finished No. 1 in The Buffalo News large school poll for the first time in school history. It was returning 25 players from that 11-0 team, including 14 starters, foremost among them running back Qadree Ollison, reigning News Player of the Year. Then came the newcomers who would walk through the school’s famous blue doors: All-Western New York first teamer Brad Zaffram transferred from Sweet Home. Elite prospect TJ Wheatley and younger brother Terius moved to town. Then a few high-caliber players from Canada. Then came more attention. Preseason rankings. Articles on websites. Canisius named the best team in the state, weeks before the start of practice. So when it was time to officially meet as a team for the first time, Robbins was ready. He looked that attention in the eye, and then looked his players in the eye. He lined them both up and went squarely at them, just what you would expect out of an ex-lineman raised in Western Pennsylvania who still plays pickup football.
It is the last one he keeps pounding into the sled.
“We will be disciplined. … And it goes way beyond the football field. To the school, to the classroom. With all this exposure, and all eyes on us, we are in the microscope: Around this city, around this state, around this region and especially around this school.
“A lot of these people that are showing you all this love, and writing articles, and doing this and doing that, they want you to fail. They can’t wait for you to fail, because it’s a story. ‘Oh, big bad Canisius blew it.’ So keep that in the back of your mind.
“We have to do it better, cleaner than anybody else in this school. We’re on time for classes, we’re not being idiots in the hallways, we’re being respectful to teachers, we’re watching our language, we’re in the right dress code, we have the right shoes on …
“People are watching you. In every aspect of your life. That’s what comes with this. You like being No. 1 in the state? You like being a big-time football program? I know I do.
“But it comes with a lot of responsibility, and a lot of expectations, and it has to come with a lot of thought by you young men. ... You have to make good decisions.”
Talent and more talent
The players in that room are among the most talented Western New York has seen in the last decade, perhaps beyond. The qualifiers deserve to be there – “arguably,” “possibly,” “perhaps” – especially because the Crusaders won’t have played a down until 7:30 Friday night in Rochester when they open at McQuaid.
There is no questioning that it is a serious collection of talent. It is unprecedented in that the room included two players who had been offered scholarships from college football’s elite programs. That’s something no Western New York team in the last decade can say. (It should be noted, certainly, that a decade ago players weren’t being offered scholarships before their junior season, as is the case with TJ Wheatley).
Ollison, a 6-foot-1, 220-pound back with a staggering combination of size, speed and savvy, will announce which college he is verbally committing to on Monday afternoon. His finalists from among 15 schools that offered him scholarships are Penn State, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse and Wisconsin.
If it were only Ollison coming back, the team would certainly be highly regarded. But among those 14 returning starters are eight who are back on defense, including two second-team All-Western New York seniors in defensive back Ryan Richards and linebacker Mike Sharpe. All-WNY honorable mention cornerback Josh Huffman, a junior, racked up interceptions last year. Also back are seniors De’Anthony Simpson (linebacker) and Keon Garrett (corner) at linebacker. David Koeppel, the only underclassman on the offensive line last year, is also back (he was named “Top Senior” at this summer’s Jim McNally camp).
In the winter, cornerback/receiver Mitch Thomas enrolled after moving back to Western New York from Atlanta, joining younger brother Dave Thomas. Mitch Thomas has turned heads in camp while Dave is one of three sophomores on varsity.
Then, in May, came the stunning transfer of Zaffram from Sweet Home. It is exceptionally rare for a sophomore to earn first-team All-Western New York honors, as Zaffram did last year, and it’s unheard of for a player of that caliber to transfer (Zaffram’s mother initiated contact with Canisius for non-football reasons). The 6-foot-1, 210-pound junior’s innate linebacker instincts and playmaking at receiver wowed many onlookers during the postseason as he helped the Panthers to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association championship game in Class A.
At that point, the rich had gotten richer.
Then, Canisius won the lottery.
When famed University of Michigan legend and former NFL player Tyrone Wheatley accompanied Doug Marrone from Syracuse University’s coaching staff to that of the Buffalo Bills, the intrigue in high school football circles was: Where will the Wheatley boys go?
After touring several schools and communities, the family chose Canisius. TJ is a 6-foot-6, 245-pound junior tight end and defensive end whose athletic gifts and ability to get to the quarterback have already earned him scholarship offers from Alabama, Florida and Michigan, among others. Younger brother Terius is a dynamic, 5-11, 170-pound sophomore backup running back who has attracted calls from major colleges; the former soccer player will be kicking off and has touchback potential.
The longer the summer went on, the stronger this already-strong team became.
Chris Gangarosa is a 6-5, 280-pound junior lineman from Fort Erie who was attending the Niagara Football Academy in Ontario before it folded after one year due to financial difficulties. He visited local schools and chose Canisius.
Then two weeks ago, Canisius received a call from the family of Michael Tarbutt, a junior kicker from just across the Peace Bridge. He was interested in enrolling. On YouTube, you can watch Tarbutt hit a field goal in a skills competition – from 55 yards.
“Canisius is just at a different level than most of us right now,” said Williamsville South coach Kraig Kurzanski, whose program has been one of the best in Western New York in recent years.
South, whose nonleague schedule this year might be the toughest among Section VI teams (at Orchard Park and at Bishop Timon-St. Jude), scrimmaged against Canisius last Saturday.
“With the addition of those two Wheatley boys, they are really, really good,” Kurzanski said. “It’s not just talent, Rich has those guys well-coached, too. They’re at a different level. They have five or six athletes out there that are Division I-type kids, and there’s not a school in Western New York that has that – maybe Orchard Park. It’s a whole different dimension.”
The Crusaders’ eventful summer led to plenty of high rankings, as Robbins put it in that opening talk, “showing them some love.”
If there is a national high school football ranking that includes a top team from New York State, Canisius is almost exclusively that team.
• The National Prep Poll highlights just one team from New York; Canisius is ninth in its East Region poll.
• RivalsHigh has Canisius at No. 1 of its New England Preseason Top 10 (the site ranks New York teams in that region).
• MaxPreps has Canisius at No. 1 of its New York preseason Fab Five (Orchard Park is No. 3).
• Athlon Sports put Canisius at No. 1 of its New York preseason top 10 (OP was No. 2).
• Student Sports has an “East bubble” of six teams outside the preseason East Top 20; two of the six are the only New York teams: Canisius and Staten Island’s Tottenville.
“Coming into this year, Canisius has been getting a lot of notoriety that is much deserved,” said St. Francis coach Jerry Smith, who has been at the helm of some of Western New York’s best teams in his 25 years with the Red Raiders. “Their program and their kids are working really hard. The publicity is good for Western New York. All of the state championships by Section VI in recent years have elevated the play of all of Western New York football, and it’s nice to keep that going.
“It’s going to be a very tough league this year. There will be nothing easy this year, that’s for certain.”
“It’s hard to be at the top guys, it’s hard to defend,” Robbins told that very attentive team room. “You’ve already seen it this summer in seven-ons and other things. We get everybody’s best shot, don’t we? When they see that blue and gold man, that other team gets fired up.
“Aquinas came in last year – we were ready for that game. What was our whole credo that day? “Enough. … Enough.” You think people have had enough of Canisius? Every newspaper, every TV show. Enough with these guys already, let’s knock them off their high horse.
“We planted the flag last year. We talked about being Crusaders, and what it means in history: Going into hostile territory, taking something over and putting our flag at the 50-yard line. We literally did it at St. Joe’s, didn’t we? Bam, right on that Joe’s logo. The flag’s been planted. We’re not sneaking up on anybody. If you are in the Northeast part of this country, you’ve heard of Canisius High School football at this point.”
Canisius, which as a private school is used to melding different players from different areas together, already employs regular year-round off-field team-building activities.
Players – led by Ollison – have said the new faces are welcome.
“From the last guy on the roster to the first guy, to the coaches, we’re a family,” he said. “When those guys finally got in here and enrolled to this school, they became a part of this family. We’re going to welcome anybody who comes, no matter who it is.”
For all of the talent on the depth chart, the most important position in sports will go to a new starter after last year’s starting quarterback, formidable run-and-pass threat Tyler Mascio, left the school last academic year (he is now at South Park). Robbins has yet to name a starter between senior Zach Liberatore and junior Jakob Loucks, a transfer from Canada. Both saw a nearly equal amount of snaps in their scrimmage and Robbins has said that perhaps both may play Friday at McQuaid.
Canisius has a schedule full of challenges, with games at Aquinas in Rochester, home against Walsh Jesuit of Ohio (which Canisius beat in a close game last year) and at Cardinal Mooney of Ohio in addition to the always challenging Monsignor Martin schedule featuring Bishop Timon-St. Jude, St. Francis and St. Joe’s.
“We must, must, must take it to the next level fellas,” Robbins says, reaching a crescendo in his opening address. “Our work has to go to the next level, our discipline has to go to the next level.
“11-0. Last season was a dream. This season it is expectation.
“If you don’t do all the little things right, and we don’t pursue excellence in everything that we do every day, somebody will get us – somebody out there is hungrier than us, they’re working harder than us.
“We can’t let that happen. We have to continue to prove ourselves. We will have many opportunities to prove ourselves this season, on many different stages.
“We planted that flag, now we have to defend it.”