Ricky Stepien is the only member of the Lewiston-Porter Lancers to play in the Section VI Football Federation Class A championship game the past two seasons, yet he's a rookie in his third varsity season.
That's because the senior, who two years ago helped the Lancers secure a berth in the sectional final for the first time in 20 years, is starting at quarterback for the first time in a career that didn't begin until he began attending high school after completing kindergarten through eighth grade at Stella Niagara in Lewiston.
Stepien, 17, helped secure the program's first title game appearance since Daryl "Moose" Johnston roamed Western New York football fields with reckless abandon during the 1980s. Stepien nailed a 24-yard game-winning field goal in his first varsity attempt two seasons ago in a 29-27 triumph over favored Olean.
Last year, he started at cornerback and was a reserve receiver on an experienced team that lost an 18-14 heartbreaker in the championship game to Iroquois.
Stepien's hands-on approach in looking to help the program reach the sectional playoffs for a third straight season isn't limited to his new offensive leadership role. He now also quarterbacks the defense, moving from corner to free safety. He still handles all of the team's place kicking and punting duties.
The senior rarely gets off the field now, unlike past seasons when he served as a sort of utility player -- first for former head coach Mark Johnson in 2003 and last year for current pilot Brian Gunby. Stepien has seen time at wide receiver, tight end and defensive end during his career.
"I worked hard in the off-season strengthening my arm and learning the plays so that, physically and mentally, I would be ready," Stepien said. "The quarterback is a leadership position. It's a whole different role to take on but I enjoy it."
Aside from throwing occasionally in practice as a junior, in the event the Lancers needed an emergency fill-in for starter Mitch Bunce, Stepien never started a game under center until the Sept. 2 season-opening loss to Lake Shore, 13-0.
Stepien's athleticism and smarts made him the ideal choice to assume command of the huddle when Lew-Port suddenly found itself in need of a quarterback last February, after last year's junior varsity starter informed Gunby he was going to focus on basketball and not return to football. Gunby turned to Stepien because he's the most experienced varsity returnee for a program that graduated Bunce and 11 other seniors. Stepien also had a decent arm to go along with some size. He's 6 feet tall, and weighs 185 pounds.
"He was someone we felt could handle what we do," said Gunby, who played his scholastic football at Newfane High School and his college ball at Brockport State College. "We talked about it, and I mentioned something to him, and he kind of thought the idea would be good. We expect quite a bit out of our quarterbacks with the offense we run, and he seemed like a kid who was smart enough to grasp all of that. He seemed like a good fit for the position.
"I think he's doing well. It's a learning process for him. Each day he's going to get better, and each day he's going to learn something different and improve. It's a big change for Ricky because now he's the one that's responsible offensively for what's going on. He's had to step it up pretty big so far this year for us. He doesn't get much rest."
Stepien spent the off-season improving his throwing mechanics and learning as much as possible about the position. He attended Jim Kelly's football camp and also participated in passing leagues in Lockport and at Ralph Wilson Stadium. He did so to get as many throwing repetitions under his belt before the start of two-a-day practice sessions last month. He also threw for about 30 minutes with a teammate after strengthening and conditioning sessions to build up arm strength and become as comfortable as possible with the mechanics of throwing a football.
To make things interesting, he'd have a receiver run passing routes every now and then.
His father, Steve, purchased a digital video camera so Ricky could break down his own performance at home after games.
"I saw this kid crawl and now he's walking like a man," said senior and second-year starter Alex Ruckh, one of the wide receivers who worked with Stepien. "He's really matured as a quarterback. At first he was all jittery, inexperienced. Now it's smooth. I don't have any doubts about what he's going to do. I just know he's going to do it. Through experience and practice, I just see him as a quarterback right now. His balls are perfect spirals, on target like he's played quarterback all his life."
Still, the offense looked like a work in progress against Lake Shore, with an inexperienced quarterback playing behind a first-year, slightly undersized starting line. Essentially, it was a bunch of new kids squaring off against a veteran Eagles team that featured five starting seniors, as well as venerable head coach Bill Moore orchestrating things on the opposing sideline.
Stepien, sophomore center Steve Zasucha and junior linemen Brent Atkinson, Pat Linnane, Jeff Schubert and Pete Violante all will be learning on the fly against unforgiving Class A competition.
The offense's struggles against Lake Shore had more to do with technique and mental mistakes at inopportune times than with being physically manhandled. Stepien admits he held onto the ball too long which, as all football fans in the area know from watching the Buffalo Bills quarterbacks in recent seasons, is a practice that spells d-o-o-m.
"I think if the team plays well together and if everyone does his job and is successful in doing their role, that's how we're going to get our victories," Stepien said. "This year we need more of a team effort. There's not just going to be like two guys running the whole show. Everybody's got to put in their time."
Lew-Port entered Friday's game at Albion having won 21 of its last 31 games, after winning just 17 times between 1995 and 2001.
Still, making the playoffs isn't the primary concern for the Lancers. Preparing for this Saturday's 2 p.m. showdown with divisional heavyweight and rival Grand Island is. Young teams just can't afford to get too far ahead of themselves, but they can use the past as a motivator, something Stepien most certainly will be doing, since he played in the 45-12 pasting inflicted by the Vikings in the 2003 sectional title game.