Turns out the newest football team in Western New York is filled with a bunch of ringers while the coach's knowledge of X's and O's extends beyond the hardwood.
A first-year football program just isn't supposed to be one of 11 area teams with perfect 4-0 records halfway through the season. Yet, there is East -- a school with a rich Harvard Cup past that is fielding a team for the first time in 28 years -- sitting atop Harvard Cup standings with perennial contender Burgard (4-0). It owns the league's only win over a Monsignor Martin Athletic Association school and seemingly possesses the goods to make a run at the championship.
"I think we've surprised a lot of people by the start that we have had," said Panthers coach Starling Bryant, who guided Buffalo Traditional to eight Section VI and three state and one Federation basketball titles, including three straight state championships from 1999-2001. "A lot of people figured a new program, a basketball coach . . . a lot of people were licking their chops at basically facing our team but I think we're getting a little bit of respect now. We're not the new kids on the block (anymore)."
The Panthers' 14-12 triumph over defending league champion Riverside last Saturday boldly announced their presence to the league. The game was a hard-hitting affair filled with enough big plays to entertain the more than 500 fans in attendance at Riverside. The biggest play -- junior quarterback Antonio Speed's game-winning 55-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver and former Burgard Bulldog Irmiyaa Burke with six minutes left -- stunned the Frontiers' faithful.
Speed, a 6-foot-4, 185-pounder in his first season of scholastic football, struggled with his accuracy but completed 9-of-18 for 160 yards.
"Everybody's been doubting us, saying we're going to be losers," Speed said. "Now we're beating people. Now they're starting to talk about us like we can be the Harvard Cup champions."
"This was a great test for us," said Bryant, who played high school football for Bennett and coached one season of little league football 10 years ago. "We showed some mental toughness."
The new East High School is the old Buffalo Traditional as the latter moved its operation into the renovated East building across from Martin Luther King Jr. Park on Northampton. District officials decided to bring back the football program and supplied the school with all new equipment, including a blocking sled with pads as well as sharp home and away jerseys. The school's colors are black and Notre Dame gold.
The old East High School won seven Harvard Cup titles outright and shared the crown twice before shutting down.
This version of East High School is new in name only as 13 of the Panthers' 38 players have varsity experience, including junior guard Jamile Mitchell-Hall, who helped South Park win the Harvard Cup in 2003. Eight other Panthers played for Lafayette while another trio played for Burgard, including Matthew Green, who has four TD catches and 470 yards receiving for the season, including 178 when he torched Walsh's secondary in a 34-8 win in the season opener.
Hall is happy he now gets to play for his own school as he used to take the Metro Rail and wait 20 minutes for a connecting bus just to show up 30 minutes late for South Park's practices. Now, he's a two-minute walk from Martin Luther King Jr. Park, where the team practices.
"I'm glad to be part of this program, finally getting to play for my own school," the 6-3, 285-pounder said. "I go to my own pep rallies and stuff now. We really have a good chance to win the Cup."
Besides Hall, fellow starting linemen Randall Wilkie, Kenneth Cooley and Shaun Radford played for Lafayette last year while 6-5, 325-pound junior right tackle Cameron Hutchinson played for Canisius High School . Radford is the center and the only senior on the unit.
Speed played his youth football for the Kensington Panthers but opted not to play for another school during his freshman and sophomore years at the former Traditional.
One player without previous high school experience is sophomore running back/linebacker Herbert Chandler, who leads the team with 38 tackles and has caused five fumbles and recovered three. He also has run for four touchdowns.
Former St. Joe's assistant Peter Hudecki is assisting Bryant along with Angelo Threat and Larry Gasbrinri.
"One thing we do do, we teach," Bryant said. "What I don't know I can study. . . . Basically it's part of getting through to young kids, showing them what you want, teaching and getting them motivated to play. You can know the X's and O's all you want but if you can't get the kids motivated to play what good are the X's and O's?"
"It feels good because now everybody knows what we do at East High," said Speed, who has thrown for 805 yards, six touchdowns with three interceptions. "We're not just smart (in the classroom), we're also talented on the football field."