CHEEKTOWAGA, NY – – The varsity football team at John F. Kennedy High School is looking to do something that has not happened in the last 30 years. Being able to play at New Era Field (formerly Ralph Wilson Stadium) is always a yearly goal set in training camp but hasn’t been accomplished since the 1986 season. The coaches and players are hoping this season will feature not just one, but two, playoff games at the home of the Buffalo Bills.
The Bears will be forced to overcome many departures, including five key contributors from last season’s offense. Last season while playing in the Class C North division, the Bears finished with a 4-5 record, with a 1-5 record against divisional opponents. JFK is losing their starting quarterback, all three of their running backs (two graduated, the other transferred), and a key lineman also to graduation.
“You have returning players here and returning players there. What I like to think is that the guys that are coming in and stepping up are more than capable.” JFK head coach Jeff Sabatino said. “I think we are improving in a lot of those replacements, and some spots we are as good if not better. The guys who are stepping in having been waiting their time, have done the work in the off-season, and I don’t see much of a drop-off there.”
Despite JFK’s lack of passing in 2015, losing a three-year starting quarterback is quite a big void to fill. Tyler Bethin, the Bears’ quarterback last season, went 21-for-75 (28.0% completion percentage), passing for 210 yards, 3 touchdowns and five interceptions. Bethin did add 26 rushes for 146 yards and one score. For the 2016 campaign, JFK will lean on Junior James Bailey to take the snaps in his first Varsity season.
“At our first camp I was very nervous because it was the first time being a quarterback at the Varsity level,” Bailey said. “Playing and having practices with all the guys, I got used to it.”
Bailey, who attended the University of Michigan’s quarterback camp this summer, is looking forward to being the Bears starting quarterback this year. After meeting his favorite Michigan quarterback, Jake Rudock, as well as Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and multiple coaches at Michigan, Bailey is quite confident that he has what it takes. Not only is he confident in himself, the entire coaching staff feels the exact same way.
“James was ready to go last year,” Coach Sabatino stated. “If it wasn’t for [Bethin] being a three-year starter, or having a backup in Brandon Kohl, James was ready to go in that position last year. We kept him at JV to let him fine tune some things, but he’s stepped in and he’s playing day one like a Varsity player.”
The Bears’ offense may be much different compared to last season as JFK may pass more than they usually do in years past, but Bailey will have to hand the ball off to someone at some point. Last year’s running backs Kenai Jordan (graduated), Matt Lanzalaco (graduated), and Lexus Pollard (transferred), combined to rush for 1,354 yards (84.5% of the team’s rushing yards). This year, however, the Bears will have to rely on someone new to be the team’s marquee tailback.
This year’s team is unique it its own way. They did lose a lot of talent from last year, but they do bring in a very good amount of talent from the call-ups from junior varsity and even from players that never have played before.
“Everybody is going to hear Jordan Snyder’s name, Brandon Kohl’s name, and Dalton Fischer’s name,” Coach Sabatino said. “Thomas Isbrandt, a senior, a track star who’s come out to play football for us and we’re so excited to have him. Junior Justin Bohrer, he hasn’t had a shot with a broken leg or a transfer, but he’s finally playing football and it’s great to have him out here. Those are two prime examples of guys that are new to football, but are athletes.”
The offensive and defensive lines could be the Achilles heel for the Bears this season. Tyler Gribble, arguably the Bears’ best offensive lineman last season, has graduated, and the Bears don’t necessarily have the biggest linemen. Varsity veterans, Zach Carrick and Josh Bremer, along with incoming junior varsity call-up Sean McGee will have to be the key players for the line on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.
The key defensive player for the Bears for the 2016 season will most likely be Jeffrey Rashko. The incoming senior had 39 tackles last season, the most of any returning Varsity player, while adding two sacks. Another defensive player that will need some eyes turned to throughout the season will be Kohl, who may be the team’s best defensive back. Last season, Kohl finished last season with 36 tackles and was tied for the team lead with three interceptions (tying fellow incoming senior Dalton Fischer).
JFK is remaining in Class C North for the 2016 season after going 1-5 last season against fellow Class C North teams. JFK will face familiar divisional teams (Wilson, Akron, and Cleveland Hill), but will face Eden/North Collins who will be playing their first full season since 2014, where they played in Class B South.
The Bears will open their season on September 2nd at Eden/North Collins with a rare 5pm kickoff. The following week, on September 10th, the Bears will host Akron in the Bears’ 2016 home opener. JFK will play four home games this season, including three league games. The three non-league matchups the Bears have on the schedule include games on the road against Lackawanna and Allegany-Limestone and a home game against Tonawanda.