Curt Fischer has had great success as the football coach at Maple Grove High School. He's won two state championships and made several deep playoff runs.
Yet this year might have been one of his best coaching jobs yet.
The 2016 season offered more than the usual amount of challenges to Fischer and the Red Dragons. They overcame them, and came within a play of capturing the state Class D title.
"I prefer the challenges," Fischer said. "I would rather do it the hard way. It challenges the kids. That's why we go to camp with bigger schools."
For overcoming an unusual set of obstacles in putting together a great season, Fischer is The Buffalo News' High School Football Coach of the Year.
Maple Grove and Chautauqua Lake's school districts had merged their football programs before the 2013 season, and stayed together for three seasons. In the last two years, the team had won the Section VI Class C crown.
That success caught the eye of sports administrators, who wanted to place the combined team in Class B in 2016. After some deliberation, the merger came to an end, and Maple Grove slipped down to Class D. That changed everything. particularly when it came to the junior varsity team.
"Absolutely - we kind of lost our JV program," Fischer said. "Lot of kids got robbed of a JV season. We just didn't have the numbers. We had to have them on varsity, and that stinks. We did what we had to do.
"I think we had 29 players with some of the JVs, and we brought them all up for the playoffs. So we had 32 then."
In the regular season, Maple Grove often had 24 players available. Eighteen are needed to avoid a forfeit.
Even with that preseason uncertainty, and with the players from Chautauqua Lake no longer available, Fischer maintained his optimism about the 2016 season.
"We knew we were going to be pretty good," he said. "We worried about filling the linemen's spots. The skill positions were going to be solid."
Maple Grove was more than pretty good. The Red Dragons won 12 in a row, with every win coming by more than 25 points, and were ranked first in the state in their class. The streak included a Section VI championship and a trip to the Carrier Dome in Syracuse for the state title for the first time since 2008.
Along the way, Fischer picked up an admirer in Bennett coach Steve McDuffie, whose team won a Section VI title of its own this year.
"Coach Fischer is a great coach and a great human being," McDuffie said. "At the sectionals, he walked by and shook the hands of all our players. He's such a class act.
"It wasn't easy for him to play with that number of players. To see how well the kids were prepared shows just how good a coach he is."
Maple Grove picked up some key injuries in the playoffs. Running back Brad Benson and quarterback Dalton Dubois had ankle injuries and were not 100 percent for the title contest with Cambridge. The Red Dragons fell just short, losing by a 22-21 score in double overtime.
Even so, Maple Grove had a year to remember. Fischer marveled at the community support the team received during the playoff run.
"It was awesome," he said. "They really got behind the team. We were very fortunate in that way. The football family here is something special. The parents rally around the team. This year, coming off the end of the merge and things like that, made it more special."
Fischer is the one saluted for his coaching work, but he knows this type of award is a team effort.
"I'm proud of the players and the coaching staff," he said. "They did a great coaching job. You can't do it without them. They worked so hard to put the kids in the right positions, especially on defense. And our special teams did a great job all year."
As for the future, football programs in rural areas will remain under pressure to field teams because of declining enrollment. Fischer said that Chautauqua Lake indicated this past week that it is interested in getting back together with Maple Grove to merge their teams. That will take some time to sort out. Ultimately, Fischer wonders if eight-man football will be adopted by schools sometime in the future.
In the meantime, Maple Grove still figures to maintain its level of excellence in the near future.
"We're bringing up some good young kids," the coach said. "You can expect us to be good next year."