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St. Francis QB Jake Ritts goes from apprentice to record-setting passer

Jake Ritts remembers waiting with anticipation for his father to arrive home from work. The St. Francis High School junior can recall the excitement of seeing his dad walk through the door.

Michael’s arrival at home meant that 6-year-old Jake was much closer to being able to indulge his football craving.

It was in the family’s driveway where Michael, a former West Seneca West High School quarterback, introduced his son to the game, wasting little time teaching him the proper throwing mechanics. But why so early in his son’s life? Why at age 6?

“I realized what he could do,” Michael said. “He was very accurate at that young of an age. … He was a natural when he threw it. He just kept getting better and better.”

Jake Ritts started with a youth-sized football and graduated to a normal size ball near age 10.

“The first thing I remember he told me, to have a high arm slot so it had to be above 90 degrees,” Jake said.

“He always told me at first to throw over the top. … Later on, I started working on my footwork and stuff like that. … I wouldn’t be a quarterback if he wasn’t around.”

St. Francis is happy Michael saw the talent, and that Jake has proved to be a quick study. They have awaited the 2019 season with anticipation, wondering what Jake can do for an encore to a record-breaking season that culminated with St. Francis’ first Monsignor Martin Athletic Association playoff championship since 2015.

Ritts and the Red Raiders begin their title defense Friday with a nonleague game at Erie (Pa.). It’s the first of two road games before a run of four home games over five weeks, including the MMHSAA opener against visiting St. Joe’s on Oct. 5.

Ritts was named second-team All-Western New York as a sophomore after he broke the Western New York record for passing yards in a season (3,366), while setting the Red Raiders’ mark for touchdown passes in a season (36).

He also set the school record for passing yards in a game (485) during last year’s season opener — a total that ranks third all-time in the area behind the numbers compiled by Jamestown’s Jake Sisson (508) and Williamsville South’s Joe Licata (492). Ritts threw for more than 300 yards in a game five times in leading St. Francis to the New York State Catholic High Schools Athletic Association final.

“It was good and all, but we didn’t win the state championship,” said Ritts, recalling Frannies’ season-ending 49-7 loss at Archbishop Stepinac of Westchester. “The exposure is fine. … It was cool to get all those yards and records, but that wasn’t what I was really focused on.”

St. Francis quarterback Jake Ritts had a big day during the Red Raiders' win over Cardinal O'Hara. (Harry Scull Jr./ Buffalo News)

Team success drives Ritts, but some individual career records are within reach, provided he stays healthy.

In 14 career starts, Ritts has passed for 3,906 yards and 38 touchdowns.

Two more seasons like he had last fall and he will topple St. Francis alum Jerry Hickson as the area’s all-time passing yards leader (7,598) and he will crush Licata’s career touchdown total (87).

“He has a chance to do some amazing things, but I don’t think going after records is his main focus,” St. Francis 31st-year coach Jerry Smith said. “He doesn’t care about them when it comes to the team aspect, but it’s always nice to have individual accolades. But that’s not his main focus.”

It’s all about being a team player, something he learned at a young age, even while learning the finer points of passing the ball.

Ritts was not allowed to showcase the lessons learned at home when he joined the Little Loop Boston Patriots.

It’s not because the game ball was too big for his hand, but because Ritts was too big to play a skill position, according to league rules.

He was relegated to playing defensive line. Chasing the ball carrier and occupying linemen so that the linebackers could do their thing. Though he wanted to play quarterback and continued honing his skills at home, he made the best of the situation.

“I had my older brother, Ricky, coaching me, so he motivated me before games,” Jake said. “I think I was a pretty good lineman.”

Eventually, children hit growth spurts, with Jake’s enabling him to trim down to the point where, by age 11, he was able to shift positions and flaunt his passing skills and his knack for keeping plays alive.

He started carving up defenses as a seventh-grader in Little Loop, but his confidence soared while playing for Hamburg High School’s junior varsity team as an eighth-grader. The breakout moment came against West Seneca East, when he passed for four touchdowns.

“It definitely boosted my confidence level,” Ritts said of that game. “I always thought I was good, but I didn’t think I was the best. When that happened, I found out that I’m capable of doing it.”

Smith liked what he saw from Ritts during his Little Loop days.

St. Francis quarterback Jake Ritts (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News file photo)

“We knew he had the potential to be as good as he is,” Smith said. “When he was in Little Loop, he was doing some things that most quarterbacks don’t (at that age), reading coverages and at least knowing where the weaknesses were. He’s perfected that. We’re still working on timing issues … but we’ve expanded because of his ability, so we’re going to be throwing a lot deeper this year, too.”

Though St. Francis graduated All-Western New York second-team receiver Dominik Thomas (College of Holy Cross), several targets return who have proved to be capable of making plays. They include Xzavier Janczylik, Antonio Corsi and Mark Arrizza.

Ritts completed passes to 15 different players last year.

In addition to tutoring sessions with his father, Jake has worked with former Sweet Home quarterback Casey Kacz and Southwestern assistant John Kinder.

Ritts has not received a Division I offer, likely because 6 feet, 1 inch is still deemed relatively short in college football circles. He opened some eyes at camps he attended over the summer, including one in Orlando while visiting his aunt.

“Everybody knows he can throw the ball with intention,” Smith said. “This kid knows where he’s going with the ball and he’s very accurate. … If he can get to 6-2, 6-3, he’ll have offers all over the place so long as he can stay healthy.”

The possibilities are endless, but Ritts’ ideal scenarios for ending his junior season go a little something like this.

“My goal is doing the best I could to help my team win a state title,” he said. “If it causes me to throw for less yards (because we’ve got the running game working), it wouldn’t bother me. If it causes me to throw for more (yardage), then that’s good, too. … But it’s all about the state championship.”

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