While SU flounders, high school football flourishes in CNY
It was a cool night even for October in Central Square, N.Y., but the lights lure all those willing to ‘rah-rah’ with one hand, holding hot cocoa in the other. Thousands of Central Square High School fans bundled in support of their winless Red Hawks, hoping high school football’s parity has made its way up I-81.
At West Genesee High School, on a rainy, cold afternoon, the league-leading Wildcats practice on its damp two-year-old turf field. Play is sloppy – but inside there’s a reminder. Hanging on a door by the boys’ locker room, a poster from State Senator John DeFrancisco: Congratulations to the 2007 Class AA Champs.
Fourteen miles away, the Syracuse football team holds its turf-side practice, too, knowing that, on Nov. 1, cobwebs may greet a sparse crowd rubbing its eyes after a monthlong college football hibernation. Already there are basketballs, not third-down rallies, echoing in the dusty far reaches of the stadium’s upper deck.
But not in Liverpool, Baldwinsville or Solvay. Or Rome, Utica or East Syracuse. Football fans can’t get enough. They cram metallic stands and lean on chain-link fences to watch in gridiron delight.
In a bizarre twist, high school football is flourishing in Central New York, experiencing its greatest boom period as SU remains mired in the program’s worst recession. From various accounts, the players are better, teams are more even and stadiums are packed tighter than ever before, lending many to believe that Section III football (the section that governs CNY) is far and away the best in the state.
The Class AA numbers back it up: A Section III team has won the state title three of the last four years; a team has finished ranked in the Top 3 in the state in each of the past four years; a team has had the Gatorade state player of the year four of the past five years; and a team has had a New York State Sportswriters Association player of the year in each of the past two years.
‘The record speaks for itself,’ said Joe Corley, West Genesee’s first-year head coach. ‘There’s just tremendous talent in this area.’
No one would mistake it for Odessa, Texas, or a sun-soaked Florida hotbed, but New York’s reputation as a D-I football prospect producer may be growing, thanks to an upswing of talent here in the state’s beltway. Local coaches didn’t hesitate to insist this is the best high school football the area’s ever seen.
‘I’ve been here a long time, and I think top to bottom it’s as good as it’s ever been,’ said Carl Sanfilippo, head coach at Baldwinsville and in his 32nd year of high school sports. ‘I think there have been teams that have been as good, but I think top to bottom it’s stronger than it’s ever been.’
Sanfilippo, whose third-ranked Bees will face Liverpool Friday in the opening round of the Section III playoffs, said crowd control may be necessary for the numbers expected to show up for kickoff.
‘Friday night in this whole area every town just kind of shuts down for high school football,’ Corley said.
So there is football fever in this woeful part of state, just don’t look indoors. Outside, under the lights, is where the game is thriving – but at Syracuse’s expense? Has SU’s downturn allowed the spotlight to refocus on the community’s good genes?
Perhaps SU needs to refocus its own recruiting spotlight, though there are indications it has. Seven recruits hailed from in-state in last year’s recruiting class. Before that, only eight in Greg Robinson’s first two full classes. Three of this year’s freshmen – Marcus Sales, Nick Lepak and Ian Allport – have already started games for the Orange.
Since 2005, Syracuse has signed less than 60 percent of the Division I recruits that have hailed from Section III schools.
‘In my opinion, the way in which Paul (Pasqualoni) was fired has hurt the reputation of Syracuse in the fraternity of high school coaches in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York,’ said Joe Casamento, head coach at Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse. ‘And I think that has made it hard for the current Syracuse staff to recruit in some of these areas.’
Casamento’s been in high school football around Central New York since 1972. His two most recent headliner prospects – Greg and Mike Paulus – both chose college in North Carolina, not north campus. But others, like 2008-grad Sales, did decide to play at SU, and Casamento believes the school’s name still peaks interest. He hates the notion that football’s pulse is gone in this area.
‘If you look at New York state, there’s probably some of the best Division III football in the country,’ Casamento said. ‘There are a lot of kids playing football. I don’t think it’s dead at all. I just think Syracuse is in a rough time, and it’s obviously the most visible.’
It’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room, as Syracuse Director of Athletics Daryl Gross told ESPN, but in the surrounding counties it may be a fading monster. Here, suddenly there’s an alternative for football fanatics. Forgive the locals if Friday nights, not Saturday afternoons, are when the face paint comes out.
Fourteen thousand Auburn fans filled the stands of the state championship game two years ago, helping the Maroons to a 27-26 victory over Monroe-Woodbury. And when Fayetteville-Manlius toppled top-ranked West Genesee three weeks ago, the crowds flooded the field.
‘It seems like it’s grown lately,’ said Bob Campese, the chairman of Section III football for the last four years. ‘Football’s more of an event. Everybody gears up for the week. It just takes over your school.’
The coaches pointed to better weight rooms and practice fields as explanation for high school football’s trend. Amenities aren’t only reserved for universities. At Cicero-North Syracuse, plush Bragman Stadium features a digital scoreboard and top-quality press box and VIP area. In the last decade, almost every school has upgraded its training facilities.
‘Where you see the improvement is that there’s always been strength training, but I think that’s gone to the next level,’ Sanfilippo said. ‘You can just see it. The last three weeks we’ve faced three running backs that are big-time kids. You can see there’s a ton of talent here.’
Sounds like Syracuse is nurturing a prospect pool. Sounds like the backyard is getting deeper and deeper with top-caliber talent.
But who’s kidding who? SU needs more than a few homebodies to revive its dormant program. The impact players run and jump where the weather’s warm and the lights burn brightest.
But can it afford to snub its neighbors? Maybe the locals will snub back. Football’s bursting in Central New York, and the volume’s turned highest when the Dome can’t match a recreation field in excitement and enthusiasm.
A month’s almost passed without the Orange at home, but who knew? Around here, football’s going the distance only in the high school ranks.
Zach Schonbrun is the sports columnist for The Daily Orange, where his columns appear every Tuesday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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