St. Francis’ Jerry Hickson and Orchard Park’s Dillon Janca are as close to being life-long friends as there is but their bond didn’t take root on a football field.
It all started in a chlorinated pond, the swimming pool at Orchard Park Country Club, when the then 5-year-olds first met as competitors. The two took turns finishing 1-2 in races. Janca earned bragging rights in the backstroke, Hickson the freestyle. Instead of animosity developing between the intense competitors, sportsmanship won out as they befriended each other and are among each other’s biggest fans.
“There’s probably a lot more reasons to hate each other,” Hickson said. “We were just never like that.”
“We both got along right away,” Janca said. “We both liked the competition. It brought the best out of each other and we became friends.”
Don’t be surprised if competition continues to bring the best out of these two senior quarterbacks. Don’t be shocked if you happen to see Hickson at an Orchard Park game or Janca at St. Francis when schedules permit, since friends support each other when they’re driving toward history.
Hickson and Janca head into the new season with legitimate chances of breaking the Western New York career passing yards record currently held by former Williamsville South and University at Buffalo star Joe Licata. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Hickson goes into the Red Raiders’ season opener Friday night at Central Catholic in Toledo, Ohio, with 5,540 yards. Janca, 5-11, 185, begins his third season with 4,533 as the Quakers kick off their season Friday night with a home contest against Pittsford of Section V.
Licata amassed 6,671 yards during his Billies career (2008-10). He also passed for an area-record 87 touchdowns.
Hickson (50 career TD passes) and Janca (48) have outside shots of matching or breaking that mark, but the yardage number is definitely within reach considering both finished with more than 2,400 yards through the air last season in guiding their teams to postseason championships.
Hickson, the all-time passing yardage leader in Monsignor Martin history, needs only 376 to pass ex- Maple Grove star Randall Secky (5,915 yards) for second all-time on the Western New York list. Curent Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly (St. Joe’s) is fourth at 5,209 yards.
Did anyone see this coming when both were junior high/middle school students at Orchard Park?
“It’d make sense in a way because we’ve always been competing … pushing each other to do the best,” said Hickson, who threw for 2,449 yards and 21 TDs last season in helping the Red Raiders end Canisius’ three-year reign as Monsignor Martin Assocation champions. “If I did it, it’d be great. I’d be part of history in Western New York football which is great tradition. … (But) I’m not a real big record-type guy. My goal is just to beat the team we’re playing against and keep winning each game.”
“We’ve always competed against each other and brought out the best in each other. … But it’s not like we’re focused on that and hoping to do that,” said Janca, who passed for 2,424 yards and 23 touchdowns in guiding Orchard Park to the Section VI Class AA crown.
Each quarterback has devoted his attention to leading his team to victory, as each wants the happy ending to the season—a state championship.
St. Francis lost in the New York State Catholic High School Athletic Association final to unbeaten Archbishop Stepinac last November. OP lost in Far West Regionals to private school Aquinas, the Rochester Section V power that completed its revenge tour following a disappointing 2014 by capturing its seventh New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association title. Both Aquinas and Stepinac finished 2015 sharing the No. 1 ranking in the state.
Winning states is the dream ending. First, Hickson and Janca must help their teams deal with the pressure of being the hunted since St. Francis and OP will get their opponents’ best games each week. The two embrace the challenge.
“You get a target on your back,” said Hickson, who also holds program records for career completions and attempts and is two TD passes away from matching Mike Radon’s school mark. “The pressure is there but it’s nothing you should lose any sleep over.”
“At Orchard Park, it’s always an expectation for us to win the section championship,” said Janca, who is believed to hold most if not all of the passing records at OP. “There’s always that goal of winning the state championship. That’s more what we’re going for.”
Hickson and Janca battled for bragging rights of a different kind while growing up. The former baseball teammates quenched their thirst for competition at their parents’ homes while playing the usual football video games – Madden and NCAA.
Those intense duels have made up for the fact they’ve never faced off head-to-head on the football field, although each’s little loop team did play one another for a youth-league title. Janca missed the game with an injury but his Orchard Park squad beat Hickson’s team from Boston.
Most of Hickson’s losses have come to Janca and vice versa. In NCAA Football, Hickson uses Texas A&M, circa the Johnny Manziel years. Janca counters with Tim Tebow-led Florida.
They never came to blows, but neither took defeat in stride, either.
“I was definitely a sore loser when I was a younger kid,” Janca said. “There were times we could hold grudges.”
“For some reason I take losing Madden and these other games seriously,” Hickson added. “Most of the losses came from Dillon. I remember them.”
The Madden encounters produced some levity. Each used to choose the worst teams with the worst quarterbacks, just for fun. At times, it led to frustration over the fact the video-game QBs failed to complete passes each knows the other can in real life.
In addition to being proficient at finding open receivers, both have shown the acumen for being trusted by their coaches to call the right plays at the line based on their abilities to read the defense. More importantly, each one knows how to lead and win. It’s something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by coaches or teammates.
“I think Jerry and Janca both have kind of the same leadership (style),” said longtime Red Raiders coach Jerry Smith, who is familiar with the Janca family as Dillon’s older brother, Derek, played at St. Francis for a year before transferring to OP.
“They’re not rah-rah guys but they say things at the right times,” Smith said. “They do get excited at times but it’s not false. They’re composed. They don’t get rattled. It’s nice to see that in a young kid. As far as everything I’ve heard and seen about Janca and the same thing with Jerry, they are ‘we’ guys. Team first, me second. Kids will battle for them and you need that in a quarterback.”
It’s an intangible that could have been flowing in excess at Orchard Park, since at one point Janca was the starting quarterback on the freshman team as a seventh- and eighth-grader, while Hickson played on the modified team.
Before playing modified, though, Hickson had started working out on Sundays with now retired St. Francis assistant John Scibetta, ex-Red Raiders and Navy QB Jim Kubiak and, of course, his father, Jerry Sr., who was a standout at Cheektowaga.
Call it a young quarterback trying to do everything within his control to reach his potential as he also received fine coaching from OP assistants Maurice Gavin, James Wegelin, Craig Dana and Chuck Senn. But Hickson fell in love with St. Francis and the school’s coaches let him know if he ever wanted to join the program, he’d be welcome with open arms.
So much for the rumors that Hickson lost a bet or coin toss to stay at Orchard Park.
“I knew they were going to be the best two quarterbacks in Western New York, period,” said Hickson’s father, Jerry, who held the area’s single-game passing yards record (455) for more than 20 years until Licata broke it in 2009. “It’s been a great move obviously. The senior in front of him got hurt and he got a chance to play as a freshman. They put the perfect offense in for him. … And he loves the school.”
Just as much as Janca, who has a 99 average, loves Orchard Park.
Janca, one of many Quakers coached at the Little Loop level by Dave Bonacquisti, proved a quick study once he became part of the scholastic program, honing his skills under the tutelage of Dana and Senn so that when the time came for him to take the varsity reins he’d be more than ready for the challenge.
“He got a great start with Craig being his freshman-year coach and quarterback coach,” longtime Quakers coach Gene Tundo said. “We put a lot of stuff on Dillon and he understands it all. He’s worked hard on his own. It’s been a group effort. Dillon is smart enough to handle everything.”
He’s not alone.
“Things have worked out great for us,” Hickson said.
While the pursuit of Licata’s record will be a topic of discussion, the most important thing to each of the quarterbacks is leading their teams to The Ralph, again.
Still, regarding that record …
“There are a lot of things that can happen over the course of the season,” Hickson said.
“We’re just going to go out, play our best game and see what happens at the end of the season,” Janca said. “I think it’d be great if at the end of the season we were 1-2 in the record books, however it comes out.”