Back in August, Tonawanda varsity football coach Joe Kelly wore a sly smile and remarked that he felt good things were coming this year.
Somewhat of a bold prediction when you consider the Warriors haven’t tasted victory since 2016.
Still, Kelly stuck to the belief he has held since the first day he walked onto the field at Clinton H. Small Stadium. Tonawanda has talent and can win.
In recent weeks a funny thing happened, Kelly’s boys have been proving their coach was right all along.
“The most important thing is the ‘we,'” Kelly said after a recent practice.
“They are buying into what the guy next to him is doing and they trust it.”
The Warriors go into Friday’s game against Eden/North Collins riding a two game winning streak. A 7-6 Week Three win over Newfane that ended the program’s 715-day streak without a win and a 27-0 win over Alden that was highlighted by Zach Braddell rushing for 201 yards.
The Warriors agree that they turned the corner during their Week Two loss to powerhouse Dunkirk.
The Marauders escaped with the win thanks to a two-point conversion in the dying seconds.
The Warriors didn’t win – they did better. The grew up and they grew closer.
“That was our eye-opener. We let it go and we didn’t want to have that feeling, that taste, in our mouth again,” said Kelly. “I was really upset. I don’t care about the wins. For me, I care about them. I want them to know what it’s like to win.”
Kelly said the best way to define the team’s feeling after that loss was the resolve that came out of it. They vowed to not lose again.
Not just idle boasting. The Warriors are backing up their words with a strong team-first mindset.
“That was the big issue that we had before. Nobody really wanted to play as a team,” said senior Josh Allen. “But we’re all playing together now. We bought into that. We’ve been putting up wins and that’s all that matters.”
Allen agreed with coach Kelly saying that the loss to Dunkirk was the watershed moment that turned them from a group of guys wearing the same uniform to a family that would go that extra mile for each other.
“Everyone started trusting each other more,” Allen said.
While this has been a collective effort there have been countless highlight reel moments as different players have stepped up in clutch moments.
Alex Taylor booted what turned out to be the game winning extra point in the win over Newfane.
Ian Summerson had a pick-six in the win over Alden. The Warriors first shutout win since 2013.
Braddell, who was a Connolly Cup selection in Week Four, scored TDs against Newfane and Alden.
“Zach knows what it’s like to win,” said Kelly. “He’s leading this team, man. I couldn’t ask anything more from him.”
As a four-time state qualifier in wrestling Braddell knows how to win and how to bring that winning mentality to the field.
“I tell them before every game to go out there every play like you’re the baddest dude on the planet,” Braddell said.
“Who cares how big you are, if you have the heart, work ethic, and will power you can achieve anything.”
Jason Frazer has been nothing short of unstoppable at inside linebacker, as he is averaging 14 tackles per game. Frazer had 12.5 tackles against Alden, a forced fumble and was in on two sacks.
“He deserves to get looks from colleges and all of Western New York,” said Kelly.
“He’s quite a difference maker.”
At the heart of it all is a ‘win for the guy next to you’ mentality.
“Before everything happened everyone was just playing for themselves,” said Allen. “Now we want to win for each other. Everyone is comparing stats and wants to be the best on the team, but we all know we’re gonna play for each other. ”
Braddell added that this group is without question the most tight-knit football team they’ve had in years. And it all begins with every guy putting their egos in check, listening to what coaches are saying and putting in the work.
“We’ve really buckled down and started buying in,” Braddell said. “Not just a few guys, but everyone. You look at every name on the roster and I promise every single one of those kids is busting their asses.”
Kelly also said, with the wins, they have become a more goal oriented team. In past years, teams would dismiss the season as another year of losing before camp was over and just focus on the rivalry game against North Tonawanda. Thinking if we beat NT, we’ve had a good year and that’s enough.
But this group is different. They aren’t looking weeks in advance. They are going a game at a time. They know that a playoff berth is within their reach so expectations have been raised from within. Sure, they still want to beat the Jacks, but now they are putting in the work every day to make that, and every other goal, happen for each other.
“These kids came together,” said Kelly. “I can’t ask any more from them.”
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