When the high school football season begins Friday, two area teams will begin their quest to return to their respective sectional championship games, and improve on last year's results.
Both Fonda-Fultonville (Class C) and Amsterdam (Class A) won their respective divisions last season but fell in their sectional championship games. The Braves ran into Hoosick Falls in the championship game, where they suffered a 31-7 loss. The Rugged Rams defeated perennial Class A champion Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake during the regular season before losing to the Spartans in the championship game.
In Section III, the Dolgeville Blue Devils won their division before falling to Westmoreland in the Class D championship game. Westmoreland handed Dolgeville both of its losses last year.
Fonda-Fultonville’s Kevin Twardzik runs downfield during a game against Voorheesville last season. (The Leader-Herald)
The rest of the area teams are looking to improve after missing the playoffs last year.
The Braves, who will open their season Saturday at John Boshart Field against division rival Taconic Hills, are looking to follow the trail blazed by last year's team. Fonda-Fultonville ran the table in its division before being stopped in its tracks by Hoosick Falls.
This year, the Braves will take the field without last year's quarterback Kody Shaw, who graduated, but coach Tom Carpenter says his team has worked hard during the offseason. The Braves returned most of its linemen, but will be looking for newcomers to fill their skill positions.
"For most of our skill positions, we have a lot of guys that have been in the program, but were backups and guys coming up from the JVs," Carpenter said. "The inexperience part of it is what we're concerned with."
That doesn't mean the Braves don't return any skill players. They're top receiver from last year, Kevin Twardzik will be back at tight end and Jake Sammons returns at wide receiver.
Defensively, the Braves return all-state selection Tyler Cranker.
The Braves got a chance to gain some preseason experience Saturday evening when they scrimmaged the Broadalbin-Perth Patriots and the Canajoharie Cougars.
"In the second week, we have full pads and they want to go live all the time," Carpenter said. "We don't have much depth so we can't go all out all the time and beat up on ourselves. Saturday was a full scrimmage other than the quarterbacks, so they'll have an opportunity to get after it a little bit."
But even with youth occupying the skill positions, the Braves, which has built a winning tradition over the past several decades, are not changing their expectations.
"The expectations are always to contend for our division, which is always tough and to contend for a sectional title," Carpenter said.
The Rugged Rams are in the opposite position of the Braves as most of their inexperience comes up front.
However, first-year coach Doug Edick said the Rams have good team speed, but the inconsistency up front is a cause for concern.
"Some days are real good and other days not so good," Edick said. "I think that's where the inexperience is coming in."
The Rams will have experience under center as Geo Rodriquez moves from running back to quarterback. He'll be leading a team that's best asset is speed, according to Edick. He was a fullback and tailback. Defensively, he will play safety.
"I think he has a lot of leadership," Edick said. "He's a really smart player. The way he goes, our team goes."
On the inexperienced line, the Rams have only one returning player, Mason Calhoun, but Edick is hopeful his team will get better as the season goes on.
The Rams had a chance to get some experience Saturday when they traveled to Schenectady.
"That's a very tough scrimmage," Edick said. "They're a tough AA school and they should be competing for their division. They're very athletic. it should be a very good test."
Edick had no plans Saturday to run a complicated offense in the scrimmage, but he used it as a gauge to find out where the Rams were in their progression as they go prepare for Friday's season opener against Averill Park at Lynch Literacy Academy.
"In Amsterdam, your goal is always to get to that championship game and win it," Edick said. "We're not going to change that."
The Gloversville Huskies, also a Class A Northwest team, are looking to recover from not making the playoffs last season. Although they finished the season with a 5-4 record, they were 2-4 during the regular season and only managed one win in their division.
The Huskies will have to move on without key players Cam Oathout, Jake McCloskey and Greg Mosetti. They return running backs Mike Murray and Mike Fancher, along with wide receiver Brandon Paul.
"We bring back some solid skill players with outstanding speed," third-year coach Jared Bongo said. "Slots Mike Murray and Brandon Paul will provide speed on the edges, while Mike Fancher will be inside runner."
Asa Barnhill will take over for Oathout under center. Bongo said he has stood out so far in preseason camp and is expected to "do a good job" at quarterback."
Bongo's key area of concern is the line, where he said the team is most inexperienced, as it will be difficult to replace Zach Handy on the line.
"If we are going to contend for the playoffs, we must be solid in that area," Bongo said.
However with all the new parts that will have to be in place, Bongo said he is confident his team will rebound from last year's disappointing season and be competitive in a division that features two sectional finalists.
Both the Broadalbin-Perth Patriots and Johnstown Sir Bills both had difficult seasons last year. The Patriots managed three wins last year, ending up fifth in the Class B West division during coach Jim Pelneau's first season after taking over from Rick Snyder.
Pelneau said the Patriots have been much more spirited and upbeat than in his first season.
"We have a lot of young guys," Pelneau said. "Things have been going well. They're working extremely hard and they're a lot more upbeat. There's more team unity than we've seen in the past."
The Patriots lost a big senior class from last year's team, which comprised most of their skill positions. They have lost quarterback R.J. Pingitore, Justin Rigo, Percy Steele and Nick Coveney. However, their strength will be up front.
"That's an area where we feel pretty strong," Pelneau said.
The Patriots are trying to fill spots at linebacker, wide receiver and quarterback. With a small senior class this year, the Patriots will be relying heavily on juniors and seven sophomores.
Most of those young players got their first taste of opposition Saturday in a scrimmage with Fonda-Fultonville and Canajoharie.
"The first thing is I want to get out healthy," Pelneau said. "That's my biggest concern because I don't have a huge amount of players . The second thing is the young guys are getting accustomed to the varsity level. We're not going to use that as any kind of excuse. I expect those younger guys to play like older guys."
In Johnstown, the Sir Bills are looking to rebound from a 1-8 season. They're only victory came against Hudson Falls.
Third-year coach Matt Benton said the 2012 Sir Bills are the hardest-working team he's had so far.
"Even though the numbers are low, this team is very well put-together and very family oriented," Benton said.
The Sir Bills' main priority was finding a replacement for quarterback Matt Hecht. Matt Szurek and Dan Nellis have been competing for that spot. Johnstown also needs to fill out the backfield as well.
"We're trying to adjust our offense based on the type of kids we have," Benton said. "this year, we look like we have more of a power running type of team."
The Sir Bills got their first taste of intersquad action Saturday when they traveled to Cohoes, which plays in the Class B Reinfurt Division.
"I'm looking at mental toughness," Benton said. "Cohoes is a good scrimmage because they challenge our toughness. We'll see how durable kids we have. We will see who can step up and make the tackles."
After spending the last three seasons among Class C teams, the Canajoharie Cougars under the direction of 14th-year coach Ken Sullivan have once again dropped to Class D.
"I expect us to have a winning season," Sullivan said. "The Ds are a tough league. There are schools that play good football. They're tough."
Also dropping with the Cougars to the Class D ranks along with the Greenwich Witches. Last year, Class D comprised only one division. With the addition two more teams, the class will be broken into a North and South division.
The Cougars also will have to contend with last year's champion Cambridge, who moved on to the state tournament.
"Hopefully we're shooting for a winning season and to make the playoffs," Sullivan said. "Then we'll go from there."
And based on what Sullivan has seen so far in practice from his team, the Cougars may be well on their way to doing that. Sullivan said he has seen a lot of aggressiveness from his team. With a good-size line, Canajoharie is excited about its running game.
"We're trying to get [our lineman] a little quicker and get to their blocks. We're trying to get our run game down so that will open up our passing game a little bit."
Sullivan said his team looks solid in practice, but that was tested in Saturday's scrimmage against Broadalbin-Perth and Fonda-Fultonville. He described the Braves as an "offensive juggernaut" that will test his team's defense.
"As long as guys are in the right spot, are aggressive making tackles, that's what we're looking for," Sullivan said.
Section III Class D
In the far eastern village of Herkimer County, football is still king as the Dolgeville Blue Devils look to once again make a big splash in the sectional tournament.
Despite having lost 13 key players from last year's team due to graduation, 10th-year coach Chris Connolly has described this year's preseason as the most fun he's ever had.
"They keep it light," Connolly said. "They're just playing football."
The Blue Devils will return skill players in Devin Coonrad, quarterback Andrew Drumm, Austin LaVeck and Mark Miller.
"Drumm is not the tallest guy in the world, but he's long on leadership," Connolly said. "He's become our unofficial captain."
Numbers are never a problem in Dolgeville and this year is no exception as the Blue Devils football program has about 45 players on it. Connolly said he will be relying a lot on juniors and sophomores.
"That's a thing a coach would be nervous about," Connolly said, but he expects his young team to be ready for the challenges that await them.