As Dan Russell addressed the Lake Shore football team late Saturday afternoon at Depew High School’s Constantino Athletic Complex, it is impossible not to notice the positive energy emanating from his words and body language.
The way the animated third-year Eagles head coach sounded, his team was the one that won by four touchdowns on a chilly spring day, not the other way around.
That’s how Russell rolls. He only saw the good from his team during a 28-0 loss to a Depew Wildcats crew that has a stud tailback in Christian Pagano and a stout line.
It’s easy to point out the negative. That tends to be the way of the world these days, but having a gloom and doom approach doesn’t help folks reach their maximum potential.
And that’s key for a program that appears to be getting healthy, numbers-wise, after a couple seasons in which lack of depth and other issues contributed to a string of one-win campaigns.
In a hard-hitting, physical affair, the four-time defending Section VI Class AA champion Legends opened the short five-week season on a positive note.
The Eagles' win totals have improved each of their first two seasons under Russell: two in 2018 and three in 2019. The program numbers have increased to the point where, next season, junior varsity will be added to a sports roster that features varsity and modified (grades 7-9). There are 46 players on varsity this season, a far cry from the days when the team had half that total. There are 60 players on the modified team.
“That’s our school record for participants,” Russell said.
“We’re just being a lot more competitive as well, even against the considered powerhouse teams,” he added. “We’re just battling a bit more than we used to have. Even today, when it was 21-0, we could have easily just tucked and ran. But we continued to work hard. We had a couple great drives. We just didn’t capitalize in the end.”
Some coaches may get frustrated by not seeing wins. Russell isn’t one of them.
“I’m a very positive coach,” said Russell, whose full-time job is meteorologist for Spectrum News Buffalo. “That’s how I coach. I love to give guys an opportunity and that’s what I’m all about, whether it’s in the weight room or football field.”
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Case in point: A couple of his sophomores making their varsity debuts bounced back from negative plays to make positive ones – which Russell believes will go a long way toward not just aiding their individual development, but the team’s, too.
“I’m very proud of these guys. We’re very young. No. 20 (Jadon Kennedy), he’s a sophomore, our starting cornerback. He gave up the first touchdown and then he (bounced back) got his first interception as a sophomore on varsity. That’s huge for us.”
There is another reason for the power of positivity. Unlike basketball, hockey, golf or even baseball – football is the one sport where if your playing days are done in high school, then chances are you’ll never play the sport again. For the other sports, there are rec leagues aplenty to continue enjoying the game and competition as an adult. But not for most football players.
“The goal right now is to go out there and have some fun. That’s the reality of it," Russell said. “Our seniors have that opportunity to play football one last time. … This is all about giving them the opportunity to get on the field with their brothers one more time and have some fun playing a great game.”
“It seems to me he’s a good coach,” third-year Depew coach Mark Dirienza said. “I think they’re going to be a team to look for down the road.”
Rashard Perry is an unfinished product, but Bennett coach Steve McDuffie said he’d be able to play college football next fall.
Pagano right, left, center
Depew didn’t put too much on film for their next opponent to see, but what Albion will get to watch is plenty of highlights with No. 2, Pagano, running left, running right and running up the center. He is perhaps their top skills player.
Pagano, a three-sport athlete who is a standout basketball and baseball player, rushed 20 times for 145 yards and two touchdowns. He nearly had a pick-six on Lake Shore’s first offensive series.
“Christian is so instinctive as a runner, you can give him the ball in any situation. To defend against him is hard,” Depew coach Dirienza said. “To have a season … kids kept strong, they went to their own gym when we were remote. We said it would happen, you have to be ready."
Even when there was uncertainty regarding a season, Pagano worked out and threw the ball around with teammates during basketball season.
“To be blessed with actually having a season is wonderful for us and we’re happy to be out here,” Pagano said.
Lancaster coach Eric Rupp on finally opening the delayed season following the Legends’ 34-8 win over Bennett: “I’m just so happy to be back on the sideline with these kids. We’ve been through so much together the last 18 months or so and myself personally, it’s the first football game I’ve ever had without my father who passed away on Father’s Day. It was an emotional day, but it felt so good to get back out (here).”