With the month of April right around the corner, the return of Section VI football is also near.
It’s been roughly 15 to 16 months since high school football was last played in Western New York. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, what would’ve been the 2020 fall season has become a modified, shortened spring campaign, officially known as ‘Fall II,’ set to begin on Thursday, April 1, and run through the beginning of May. There will be a five-week regular season, followed by two weeks of sectional playoffs.
There are 12 games on Thursday’s opening night slate, including four matchups featuring eight Class A teams. Class A could be one of Section VI’s most competitive and interesting leagues, boasting 16 teams, divided into two divisions (A1 and A2).
It’ll be an action-packed, fast-paced season. With only four playoff spots available in each league and just five weeks to earn a postseason berth, every game is going to carry a lot of weight.
Here’s a look at the Class A teams:
Grand Island Vikings
While the Vikings finished 2019 with a 4-5 record, its last season was pretty successful, having made the playoffs and even won a postseason game. Dean Santorio, who’s in his 20th season as Grand Island’s head coach, is confident in his team’s senior leadership heading into the spring, and really likes the number of athletic players the Vikings will have on both sides of the ball.
Joe Seifert, a senior center/linebacker, will play a big role on both sides of the ball. Santorio is particularly excited about the linebackers, a group that boasts a lot of experience. Along with Joe, Luke Seifert, Kurtis Smith, and Brian Bielec will see time at linebacker. Up front, Grand Island’s defensive line will feature Dominic Gramza, Lucas Tahara, Griffin Miller, Isaac Quick, and Sam Mesmer.
On offense, Seifert will lead a strong offensive line that will be tasked with protecting quarterbacks Justin Horvath and Tyler Weigel. Tyler Figliola and Jack Dlugokinski are expected to split carries at running back, and Luke Seifert, a senior tight end, and Ben Steck, a senior wide receiver, could be the top targets in the passing game.
The Vikings’ junior varsity team had a great season in 2019, finishing 7-1. Santorio is hoping this year’s team will come together quickly, which could be tough after having such a long break from football due to COVID-19; but, a group of good players from a successful JV team should make for a (somewhat) smoother transition to the varsity level, despite having to adjust to the unusual circumstances.
Grand Island will open its season at home against Lockport on Thursday, April 1, at 7 p.m.
The Bulldogs are coming off a 2-6 campaign in 2019, but have a talented crop of players coming up from a junior varsity squad that finished 9-0 two autumn’s ago.
Devin Collins, Jeffrey Leavell, Bryce Hand, Brady Kustra, Andrew Takacs, Connor VanDusen, Justin Penn, and Emmett Reader will all be first-year starters. According to head coach Jeff Tripp; Hand, Collins and Leavell could be poised to have breakout seasons.
Offensively, Hamburg is strong at most of its skill positions. On defense, Tripp says the front four and secondary are pretty solid as well. Senior Jon Bennett will be a leader on both sides for the Bulldogs. The 6-foot-2 defensive end and tackle could even make his way into the Trench Trophy conversation with a strong final high school season.
Another player to watch is senior Josh Hine, a John Carroll University commit. At tight end, Hine will be a reliable piece on the offense; and at linebacker, along with Bennett, he’ll be a leader on defense.
Along with Hine and Bennett, quarterback/safety Nolan Heavern, running back/linebacker Noah Gallagher and wide receiver/cornerback Elija Depasquale are other returning players to keep an eye out for.
The Bulldogs open their season on Friday, April 2 at Jamestown at 7 p.m.
Jamestown Red Raiders
If there’s one word to describe the 2020-21 Jamestown squad, it’s ‘experienced.’ The Red Raiders return eight starters on offense and defense, and could very well be the favorites to be the top seed in A1 going into the playoffs.
The talented group returning from the 2019 team that finished 9-2 includes Jaylen Butera, Trey Drake, Elijah Rojas, Simeon Leeper, Demarri Jones, Drayce Garland, Julian McGaughy, Kameron Melendez, Caleb Bane, Markell Carter, Cam’ron Mays, and Takye Branch.
Along with experience, Jamestown’s calling card this spring will be its athleticism and speed. Ironically, head coach Tom Langworthy believes his team needs to improve with its ‘explosive plays’ this upcoming season.
At running back, Butera could provide a number of big plays over the next month and change. McGaughy leads a solid offensive line that’ll provide the junior tailback with plenty of protection. Plus, Butera won’t be the only player opposing defenses have to worry about.
Drake will be under center for his second season as the starting quarterback, despite being only a sophomore. Drake will have a nice stable of receivers to throw to, with Rojas, Jones, and Leeper expected to be his top targets.
Jamestown opens its season at home against Hamburg on Friday, April 2, at 7 p.m.
Kenmore West Blue Devils
The Blue Devils finished 5-3 at both the varsity and JV levels in 2019. Kenmore West’s 2021 squad will feature a nice mix of returning veterans and new underclassmen.
Sophomore Jermaine Atkins headlines a young crop of players that includes Jason Britton, Evan Davies, and Selah Clemons. As far as returning players go, Patrick Gerbec, Hunter Gore, Noah Michaels, Colton LoCicero, and Jabari Lee are names to look out for.
Kenmore West head coach John Haynes thinks both Atkins and Lee could have breakout seasons. Atkins will be a nice pass-catching weapon on offense, while also being a versatile piece on the defensive side of the ball. Lee, a possible Trench Trophy candidate, anchors an offensive line that Haynes believes is one of the team’s biggest strengths.
The Blue Devils will play back-to-back road games at Lockport and Jamestown in a six-day stretch in mid-April, with the trip to Jamestown being the second of the two contests. However, Kenmore West gets to wrap up its regular season with two consecutive home games against Grand Island and Hamburg.
Kenmore West opens its season at home against McKinley on Saturday, April 3, at 2 p.m.
After a 2-8 varsity record and 1-7 JV finish in 2019, the Lockport football program is looking to have a bounce-back year in 2021, and things are looking up for the lions.
Despite getting the tough draw and having to play three of its five regular season games on the road, the Lions could make some noise in A1. With nearly 70 players in the school’s football program, Lockport has done a good job of beginning to turn things around.
Sophomore Jason Greene is set to spend his first season under center as the Lions’ starting quarterback. Running back/linebacker Devin Powell-Wiley and defensive back/wide receiver Collin Thompson are two other first-year starters that are set to take a big step up.
The running back duo of Ricky Maye and Julius Williams will likely be what carries Lockport’s otherwise mostly inexperienced offense. On the defensive side, a group that’s a bit more solidified at this point, both Maye and Williams contribute as main pieces in the secondary.
Outside of the skill positions, linemen Brian Hillman and Christian Schaffert are two seniors that could find themselves in the Trench Trophy discussion.
Lockport opens its season at Grand Island on Thursday, April 1, at 7 p.m.
McKinley is another team that will play three of five regular season games on the road. Coming off a 9-1 campaign in 2019, and with a number of impact players returning, the Macks are poised to be one of the top teams in Class A once again, regardless of where their games will be played.
Last season may have ended with a loss to South Park in the Section VI finals at Bills Stadium; but that playoff run likely provided some great experience (and extra hunger) to this returning group of McKinley players.
Senior running back and linebacker Takeo Funderburk will attract a lot of eyes on both sides of the ball, as will fellow senior Henery Hunter, another running back/linebacker. Jayvon Whitfield, also a senior, will handle the quarterback duties and play safety on defense. Whitfield will have a number of talented receivers to throw to, including Hunter, Manville Wright and Sammy Moss, a 6-foot-4 senior tight end.
Moss will play a big role blocking on offense as well, while also playing defensive end on the other side of the ball. Gavin Benadict and Jontae Griffen, two Trench Trophy nominee candidates, according to second-year head coach Brian Davis, will lead McKinley’s offensive line. Benadict (Alfred State) is one of three McKinley players committed to play college ball, along with Funderburk (Bluefield State) and Hunter (Edinboro University).
Players such as Junior Swen, Davon Cottom, Jayden McWilin, and Darrick Burt will assume starting or larger roles this season as well, according to Davis.
McKinley kicks its season off on Saturday, April 3, at Kenmore West at 2 p.m.
Niagara Wheatfield Falcons
After a 1-6 finish in 2019, there will be quite a few significant changes with the Niagara Wheatfield varsity football team. However, the Falcons do boast some solid continuity from last season as well, returning 20 seniors, a huge leadership group.
Despite being in his sixth year with the program, Joe Kiszka will enter his first year as Niagara Wheatfield’s head coach; he and this group of Falcons will have the pleasure of playing on the school’s new turf field, along with having their senior day game against Jamestown (4/23) under the lights.
Niagara Wheatfield’s crop of returning players includes Joey Kiszka Jr., Damarie Hilson, Jayden Baker, Larry Vance, Louis Perreault, Andy Klebaur, Anthony Lucinski, Joey Ambrosia, and Tim Rolling. Lucinski, Ambrosia, and Rolling will be part of an offensive line that will be protecting quarterback Evan Stickney who was recently named the starter.
Along with a veteran-heavy offensive line, Stickney will have a solid stable of receivers to pass to, including Kiszka Jr., Baker, Vance, and Mark Kuhn, a senior who coach Kiszka believes could have a breakout season. On defense, Perreault and Klebaur, both linebackers, could be poised to lead that unit.
Niagara Wheatfield opens its season on the road against West Seneca West on Saturday, April 3, at 2 p.m.
West Seneca West
Despite the alternate location for home games this season, the Indians have the same starting running back as they did in the fall of 2019 in Isaiah Simmons. West Seneca West head coach Mike Vastola believes the running game will be one of, if not the team’s biggest strength this season, and Simmons is largely why.
Vastola did mention that this year’s team does lack experience just a bit. Offensively, there could be some growing problems due to youth and new pieces being inserted into big spots. Lucas Freeland, a 6-foot-2 junior, will take over quarterbacking duties. But, Freeland will have a veteran presence in the passing game in senior receivers Julian Maloney and De’Merion Weatherspoon, along with junior Tevin Mobley.
One guy that won’t be under the radar for long is 2022 TE/LB Justin Piwowarczyk, who has become a strong prospect in WNY. Piwowarczyk plays both sides of the ball, has deceptive speed, a physical blocker in the run game and is quick to the ball.
Up front, seniors Mike Witt and Nick Conrad will lead Freeland’s offensive line; both play on the defensive line as well. They’ll be playing under a new line coach this season in Chuck Tilley.
West Seneca West hosts Niagara Wheatfield on Saturday, April 3, at 2 p.m. to open its season.
Between varsity and JV, Amherst has around 65 players in its program. The varsity team will be led by a group of dedicated seniors, but will also include a promising new crop of guys coming up from JV, a team that finished 4-4 in its last season.
The numerous delays and shortened schedule hasn’t affected Amherst’s seniors’ attitudes towards the upcoming season. Head coach Jason Beckman said the seniors have been working very hard since the end of last season, and are excited to get back on the field.
Quarterbacks Nick Tiberi and Isaiah Okoro are two of those seniors that’ll lead the Tigers throughout the next five-to-seven weeks. Along with the senior duo, other notable returning players include Darion Frederick, Eric Freeman, Darviae Gray, and Tyree Orange.
Orange, a senior defensive end/offensive guard and possible Trench Trophy candidate, will lead a defensive unit that Beckman hopes will be improved this year. Another player to keep an eye out for is Ted McDuffie Jr.; Beckman believes he can have a breakout season.
Amherst opens its campaign on the road against Sweet Home on Thursday, April 1, at 7 p.m.
Kenmore East Bulldogs
The Bulldogs will have a new head coach this season in Brian Hillman, he’ll be looking to build off of a 2-6 finish in 2019, and get Kenmore East its first winning record since 2007.
Kenmore East’s JV team also didn’t have a memorable 2019 season, finishing 1-7. But, with over 65 players between grades 9-through-12, the Bulldogs are building a strong foundation, and are hoping it’ll lead to positive results.
Senior quarterback Marcus Diaz will be heavily relied upon this season under center, while also chipping in on the defensive side at safety. A couple of Diaz’s top weapons on offense will be junior running back Nestor Hernandez and junior wide receiver Jacob Coburn. Both Hernandez and Coburn play on defense as well, at linebacker and safety, respectively.
Another player to keep an eye out for is Dominic Montgomery. Hillman sees the sophomore as a potential breakout player this season. Montgomery could contribute on both sides of the ball, playing running back and linebacker.
Kenmore East will open its season at home on Saturday, April 3, at 7 p.m. against Williamsville East.
North Tonawanda Lumberjacks
The North Tonawanda football program is looking to rebuild itself after a disappointing 2019. The Lumberjacks’ varsity squad finished with its worst record in decades last season, a 1-8 tally, and JV went winless.
Despite the struggles two autumns ago, head coach Rick Tomm likes what he sees from his group headed into April 2021. Tomm describes the team as “coachable and committed,” and that the group has a strong work ethic and a lot of enthusiasm.
Tomm also likes his team’s leadership group this season. Notable returning players that could take leadership roles include seniors Chris Kinney, Wally Wisniewski, Anthony Andolina, and Aidan Ferry; along with juniors Ashton Kasprzak and Andrew Kosikowski.
North Tonawanda will have a strong young core of players to go with its group of upperclassmen. Sophomores Nash Rieselman, Sam Heim, and Dennis Johnson will all take on big roles this season, and could very well breakout as impact players.
Kosikowski is expected to start under center; and while athleticism and speed isn’t the Lumberjacks’ biggest strength, he’ll have some formidable weapons on offense. Kosikowski will also have a solid line blocking in front of him. Kinney and Kasprzak will anchor that group. At 6-foot-3, 280 pounds, Kasprzak has the potential to be a Trench Trophy nominee this season.
North Tonawanda will travel to Williamsville South on Thursday, April 1, to open its season with a matchup against the Billies; kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.
South Park Sparks
South Park had itself quite the season in 2019, capturing a Section VI Class A championship and finishing with a 10-1 record. The Sparks went undefeated in Section VI, getting off to a 10-0 start before losing to Section V’s Canandaigua in the Far West Regional.
As the defending sectional champions, South Park will have a big target on its back in A2, and will likely be circled on each of its opponents’ calendars.
The Sparks return a ton of talent from last season’s team. Senior Mykell Hepburn will be back at quarterback; and he’ll have his top offensive weapon back in Keith Jackson, a senior running back/linebacker.
Tim Delaney, who’s entering his 12th season as South Park’s head coach, sees Jackson as a potential Connolly Cup finalist, as he’s one of the most powerful and explosive runners in Western New York.
On the defensive side of the ball, along with Jackson, the Sparks are led by defensive end Marquan Fluitt. Similar to Jackson, Fluitt has the ability to be a Connolly Cup finalist. Fluitt is also expected to contribute on offense, as he’ll take some snaps at running back.
South Park’s JV team finished 6-2 in 2019, and a talented group of younger players is coming up from that squad this spring. Parrell Fulgham, De’Marie Johnson, and Sam Adgate are likely to take on big roles in their first varsity season, but could also be breakout performers as well.
South Park’s season begins on Thursday, April 1, with a road matchup against Starpoint. Opening kickoff is scheduled from 7 p.m.
Starpoint enters this season coming off of a 4-4 campaign in 2019. Under first-year head coach Tim Racey, the Spartans return a lot of solid pieces, and will be brining up a crop of players that were part of a 6-2 JV season last school year.
Quarterback is one position where Starpoint knows it’ll be set. Carson Marcus, a 6-foot-0 junior, will be back under center for the Spartans after a strong showing as a sophomore in 2019. Marcus’ most-used weapons on offense could very well Nate Lee, a junior wide receiver/safety, along with Luke Davis, a sophomore wide receiver/linebacker. On defense, Davis is part of a linebacker group that Racey is very high on.
Marcus will also have a strong offensive line in front of him. Junior lineman Colby Lawrence headlines the group of big men, and could be a Trench Trophy nominee by season’s end. Seniors Beckham Peehler and Ethan Bannister are expected to play large roles on the line as well.
Other players stepping into bigger roles this season include Hunter Briggs, a senior defensive back/wide receiver, who could be seeing action on both sides of the ball. Thomas Browne is another name to remember, as he’s one of the top players coming up from the JV squad.
Starpoint will host South Park on Thursday, April 1, at 7 p.m. to open its season.
Sweet Home Panthers
After a 0-8 finish in 2018, Sweet Home rebounded and ended last season with a 4-4 final tally. The Panthers fell to McKinley in the first round of the sectional playoffs, but the season put Sweet Home back on the right path. A strong foundation has been built, as JV finished 5-2 last season, and the modified team has compiled a 13-1 record over the last two years.
The Panthers will look to carry that momentum into this spring, despite losing some big impact players from the 2019 group.
Tyrell Laws will take the reigns at quarterback this season after playing at wide receiver last year. Third-year head coach Jeremy Zimmer is very confident in sliding the senior into that spot, referring to Laws as “one of the best and most explosive athletes in Western New York.” Zimmer also noted Laws is planning to continue his football career at Brockport in the fall.
Laws will have a number of weapons around him in Sweet Home’s offense, including senior running back Jailen Gaines, senior wide receiver Tazir Redden, and sophomore running back Jordan Theodore. Zimmer noted that Sweet Home would boast a lot of speed on offense.
Up front, Laws will have a lot of protection. Left tackle Jimmy Griffo, a four-year varsity starter and another player that could be on the Trench Trophy committee’s radar, will lead the offensive line. Along with Griffo on the line are senior Kevin Murphy, a three-year starter, junior Matt Toro, and sophomore Herman Wooten. Toro and Wooten played at Canisius last season, but both decided to transfer back to Sweet Home, their original school; which Zimmer sees as huge additions.
Gaines, a first-team All-League selection at defensive end last season and Edinboro signee, will lead a defensive line this year that Zimmer sees as “very strong.” Other big names on Sweet Home’s defense include junior defensive backs Marcus Hunt and Nate Moody, who both started as sophomores, and senior defensive tackles Otis Taylor and Darnell Jackson.
Sweet Home opens its season at home against Amherst on Thursday, April 1, at 7 p.m.
Williamsville East Flames
Williamsville East is looking to bounce back from an 0-8 campaign in 2019. Despite the Flames’ struggles last season, a solid group of players are returning, along with a promising group of players that were on JV last time high school football was played in Section VI.
Leadership will be one of Williamsville East’s strengths this season, according to head coach Mike Torrillo. The Flames have four senior captains to help lead this spring, Austin D’Amico, Ethan Dalton, Gavin Hamilton, and Danny Cannon.
D’Amico is part of a wide receiver group that will include senior Gavin Adams, fellow senior Kristian Early, who’ll be stepping into a starting role this spring, and sophomore Dorian Falcon, who Torrillo sees as a potential breakout player.
Quarterback Alex Cook will have a number of good targets to throw to. However, Torrillo believes the offenses biggest strength will be its run game. Dalton will likely take the most carries as the team’s No. 1 running back. A solid offensive line will help move the chains as well, and with two captains, Hamilton and Cannon, and junior Aidan Lin anchoring that group, the Flames could be very strong up front and in the trenches.
With the run game poised to be one of Will East strength’s, stopping the run on defense, ironically, is an area where the Flames will look to really improve.
Williamsville East opens its season on the road at Kenmore East on Saturday, April 3, at 7:00 p.m.
Williamsville South Billies
Williamsville South will be looking to build off of a 6-3 finish in 2019 this upcoming spring. The Billies are returning a ton of talent, and head coach Kraig Kurzanski, who’s going into his 15th season, really likes what he sees from this year’s group.
The 2021 edition Billies are built on athleticism, speed, and physicality, according to Kurzanski. Jon Clifford, one of Will South’s five captains, will be back under center to lead the offense. Along with Clifford, South’s captains are Jeremy Matute, Aidan Ostrowski, John Maher, and Matt Murphy.
Matute headlines a deep, talented wide receiving corps that includes Brett Johnson, Christian Dewer, and Max Graves, while Murphy, a potential Trench Trophy nominee, will anchor the offensive line.
Will South’s defense will be led by Ostrowski, who took home league Defensive Player of the Year honors last season, and was an honorable mention All-State linebacker. Caleb Kruzicki, a junior linebacker, is a player Kurzanski believes can have a breakout year as well. The Billies’ secondary should be pretty solid as well, given the team’s athleticism and speed.
Kurzanski and his coaching staff have nearly 80 players in their program between grades 9-through-12, along with another 40-plus on modified; so, there is a good foundation in place. However, with the talent Will South has right now, this season could be a big one, despite it being delayed and shortened.
Will South will open its season on Thursday, April 1, at home against North Tonawanda, with the opening kickoff scheduled for 7 p.m.