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South Park, St. Francis reap the rewards of dedication

Twenty minutes after the game Friday, after celebrating with his players and handling postgame interviews, Tim Delaney retreated to the locker room and checked his cellphone. Eighty-one text messages were left for the South Park football coach after taking down Maine-Endwell.

Eighty-one.

Delaney was bombarded with email and voice mails. Every time he looked at his Twitter account, it showed 20-plus notifications. He would refresh his account and find 20-plus more. While the kids drifted off to sleep during the 2½-hour ride from Cicero, he thanked people until the bus returned home at 2 a.m.

“I’ve never received so many texts, calls, social-media notifications in my entire life,” Delaney said Saturday. “I’m not familiar with that because I don’t get national media attention. It was overwhelming, but overwhelming in a good way. I sat there for a minute or two and soaked everything in.”

That’s what happens when a school such as South Park knocks off a superpower with a 62-game winning streak, in the state Class A semifinals for public schools. In 2007, the year before Delaney took over, South Park had a 0-9 record and scored 12 points all season. Now it’s a win from a state title. No wonder he barely slept after the game.

“I was too amped up to take a nap,” Delaney said.

Jerry Smith is familiar with the aftershock that comes with St. Francis winning a big game. He helped turn the Red Raiders into a Western New York powerhouse during his 27 seasons in Athol Springs. In 2004, St. Francis climbed to the 22nd-ranked high school team in the country on the USA Today poll.

Thanks in part to Bill Polian and his sons, St. Francis evolved into a pipeline for NFL coaches and administrators.

To review: Tom Telesco is the general manager in San Diego. Dave Caldwell has the same gig in Jacksonville. Brian Daboll won four Super Bowls over two stints in New England. In between, he was offensive coordinator for three other teams. Chris Polian is a finalist to become GM in Detroit. Brian Polian is head coach at Nevada.

Sure enough, after Frannies drilled three-time state Catholic school champ Canisius, 42-7, in a stunning upset at The Ralph last week, the cartel converged on Smith. He counted more than 150 emails and congratulatory notes and dozens of text messages after his biggest victory in years.

“Oh my God,” Smith said. “It’s crazy. I tried to answer every single one – thanks, thanks, thanks, thanks, thanks. Actually, it was a little overwhelming.

“But for me, it’s an opportunity to make a statement for all the work that they’ve done. It was significant. Canisius is a three-time state Catholic champion.”

The contrast between South Park and St. Francis, financial and otherwise, is undeniable. However, their success this season shows how different schools from vastly different environments can wind up on the same path.

South Park is part of a city school system that for years lacked the financial support needed to excel on the field. St. Francis is a private school in the suburbs with a new artificial playing surface and $4 million athletic facility under construction. Cold truth: South Park has made it work with less.

Take a closer look, and you see the two programs are strikingly similar. It starts with coaches who speak the same language when it comes to football. Their success is hardly a coincidence. Delaney and Smith are fully committed and demand the same from their players.

In both cases, it works.

“In order to build a program, and it doesn’t matter if it’s football, basketball, hockey or tennis, it’s all about the time and dedication you put in,” Delaney said. “When you do that stuff, those kids see it, their parents see it and they want to be a part of it. They want to have those experiences that make them better people.”

“You have to be all-in when you coach at a school like this,” Smith said. “You can’t do the bare necessities, just coach during the season and do nothing in the offseason. This is 24/7/365. Tim does that.”

Buffalo Public Schools’ open enrollment allows kids to attend the high school of their choice. South Park has become a destination for kids who are interested in playing for a successful football program. Six years ago, Delaney added a junior varsity team that kept more kids involved and prepared them for his team. They embraced his dedication.

The same premise has held at St. Francis, and other private schools in the region, for years. Canisius, which fell behind the likes of St. Francis and St. Joe’s, dramatically improved its team and became a destination in recent years. Catholic schools have engaged in an arms race. When done right, it’s better for all kids.

South Park proved this season it didn’t need the most support in Western New York to build the best team. The Sparks are 11-1 after walloping suburban public schools that had plushy practice fields. Rest assured every victory this season was a little sweeter for a team that had more to overcome than its opponent.

“We’re working on that stuff,” Delaney said. “Instead of making excuses, we’re trying to do what we can with what we have. Our school is very transient. Kids come in and out all the time. The kids playing on Maine-Endwell, guaranteed, minus a kid here or there, they had that team going since seventh grade.”

Nobody understands the bumpy road better than Delaney, who was a senior at South Park in 1997 when he was bitten by the coaching bug. He started coaching at the youth South Buffalo Shamrocks to fulfill volunteer work required by the school. In no time, he was hooked.

Delaney turned to teaching as a career choice partly because it would lead him to coaching. He was 20 years old and a student at Buffalo State when Nichols School hired him as an assistant. He coached at Hutch-Tech for two years. He worked under Kraig Kurzanski at Canisius, St. Mary’s of Lancaster and Williamsville South. He was coaching JV when a freshman named Joe Licata started his career.

He had been teaching English at South Park for six years when he was hired to coach the football team. He won one game his first season. The Sparks were around .500 for several years before the benefits of the JV program took hold. South Park is one win from winning a state title.

Delaney has learned what Smith already knew: Amazing things can happen when a team gets the message.

email: bgleason@buffnews.com