Class D Preview
RENSSELAER – The Rensselaer Rams have a brand-new field to break in this year, but the 2008 season brings the same old challenge for Rensselaer head coach Joel Preston: the numbers game.
Rensselaer High qualifies for Class D, the smallest of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association’s five classification levels. While the cutoff numbers vary by sport, the smallest football grouping includes all schools with fewer than 275 students in grades nine, ten and eleven.
“There is probably not a kid who is eligible to play football that I didn’t talk to on the phone this summer,” Preston said. “I try to reach out to everybody and the kids do that too. They try to knock on doors and get everyone out.”
Although the school does not offer any boys sports in the fall other than football, it is still impossible for the high school teams to run separate practices with full 11-on-11 scrimmages: 37 players in total turned out for varsity and junior varsity squads.
“Fact is,” Preston said, “there are only right around 50 kids in the graduating class every year and if you get a majority of girls, it doesn’t leave a lot of guys left to play football.”
But that does not mean the Rams have low expectations. Rensselaer fell just one game short of the Class D Super Bowl in 2006 and 2007 and with a bumper crop of talented returnees, the Rams have reason to aim high. Only three starters from Rensselaer’s 2007 team were lost to graduation and the three players filling those spots all saw considerable time on the field last year.
Rensselaer quarterback Shane Brozowski throws a pass during practice last week. (Tom Killips - The Record)
Shane Brozowski, a senior quarterback and linebacker, starts his second season under center and serves as a leader for the Rams on both sides of the ball. He says the tight-knit vibe at Rensselaer has its benefits.
“I can trust everyone,” Brozowski said. “Definitely the backs that protect me and the (offensive) line. It’s going to be a good year, I’m excited.”
“Shane is they key,” Preston said. “But the offensive line is too. They have to protect him.”
Rensselaer went 4-2 in league play last year and finished with a 6-3 overall record, losing to eventual Section II champion Fort Edward in the Class D semifinals.
Along with Brozowski, senior Zach Reynolds (tight end/linebacker) and junior Nate Butler (fullback/linebacker) round out the captain spots. Jasheem Hamilton, a junior tailback and linebacker, figures to get the lion’s share of carries – and he also completes a tenacious linebacking corps.
But the Rams’ strength this year might be an influx of playmakers at the speed positions. Chris Britt and Mico Perez-De Los Santos, both juniors, are hoping to create a new air attack to balance the running game.
“Coach said we’ll be doing a lot of passing,” Britt said. “Usually, we’re a run team and now we’ve got a lot of good players. And Shane, he’s got a great arm.”
“Those are two kids that can score from anywhere on the field, anytime,” Preston said of Britt and Perez-De Los Santos. “Our overall team speed is fantastic.”
Rensselaer opens the season Saturday, Sept. 6 at Bishop Gibbons and the Rams will play their first game on the new field on Friday, Sept. 12 against Saratoga Central Catholic. Spa Catholic, which has about 100 students in the high school, is trotting out a team after a twenty-year hiatus.
Hoosic Valley, a Class C school, fielded a team for the first time in school history just two seasons ago and Fort Edward, with 110 students in grades nine through eleven, has dominated Class D in the past. Smaller schools are finding that with an outpouring of community support, running a successful football program is possible.
Preston called football the “city sport” in Rensselaer because the children grow up learning in the Pop Warner program and dream of playing on the varsity team from a young age. The district’s new middle school team is also beginning to make football a habit among the youngsters anxious to get involved in an extra-curricular activity.
“The fact that we started a modified program is really helping,” Preston said. “Kids get to middle school and they want to get involved in something. Having a sport there, whether they know they want to play or not, they give it a shot. If they didn’t play modified, they might play something else or try something else. They get the taste in their mouth and they follow through.”
All athletic teams in Rensselaer also get assistance from the Rensselaer Athletic Association, a non-profit organization run by parent volunteers since the late 1970s. The group collects money from concession stand sales and donates equipment to needy players and teams.
While the Rams are small-school players, their aspirations are enormous.
“We have high expectations,” said Preston. “We were one game from the Super Bowl the last two years and their goal is to get to the Super Bowl. We’re ready to take the next step.”
Two minute drill: Class D players to watch
Derrick Pitts, junior running back, Bishop Gibbons, 6-0, 174
Pitts rushed for over 500 yards last season and looks to lead the Golden Knights to their first winning season since 1976.
Ryan Maxwell, junior wide receiver, Bishop Gibbons, 5-6, 130
A bright spot on a disappointing 2007 season for Gibbons, Maxwell will spark a new-and-improved passing attack.
Dylan Slater, junior running back, Canajoharie, 5-9, 160
Led the team in scoring as a sophomore and took the Cougars to the 2007 Class D title game. With Slater back, Canajoharie just might be the team to beat in the South Division.
Nate Butler, junior fullback/linebacker, Rensselaer, 5-10, 175
Butler is not likely to get many touches as a fullback, but he will pave the way for a horde of speedy Rams backs and also be an aggressive playmaker on the defensive side of the ball.
Kyle McKeighan, junior quarterback, Salem, 6-0, 160
The junior begins his third year starting under center. He threw for over 600 yards last season although the Generals struggled, going 1-8.
Colby Stout, junior running back, Greenwich, 5-8, 165
The Witches drop down to Class D after playing to a 4-5 record in Class C last year. Colby will fill in for older brother Dylan, who graduated after last season. Colby had 223 yards on 75 carries as a sophomore.
Bob Phillips, senior quarterback, Fort Edward, 5-10, 140
Wide receiver Matt Thibodeau graduated as the second-leading receiver in career yardage in Section II history – meaning Phillips will need to find a new target. With backs Damian Taylor and Tony Breeyear lost to graduation, Phillips figures to be the Flying Forts’ main offensive weapon in their defense of the Section II title.
Ray Cummings, senior lineman/fullback, Fort Edward, 5-9, 155
Cummings was a versatile player a year ago, appearing both in the backfield and on the front line.
Logan Rock, senior defensive lineman, Warrensburg, 5-10, 220
Rock is one of the top wrestlers in New York State and finished fourth overall in the state meet. Opposing offensive lines had better get a push on him as his size could free up linebackers for easy tackles.
Tom Holmgren, senior quarterback, Warrensburg, 6-0, 170
The Burgers went 3-6 in Class D a year ago, but Holmgren is poised to take Warrensburg on a charge in the North Division in his senior season.
2008 Class D Preseason Poll
1. Canajoharie – The Cougars have steadily improved since reforming a varsity team in 2004 after a one-year hiatus, culminating in a 9-1 campaign and a berth in the Class D Super Bowl in 2007. Running back Dylan Slater led the way as a sophomore and will be expected to take more of the load this year.
Canajoharie plays at Rensselaer in week three, a game that might well determine the winner of the South Division.
2. Rensselaer – The Rams improved in the offseason in two major categories: depth and speed.
Five running backs all made a good impression in the first two weeks of practice and a number of perimeter speed players are looking to be major targets for quarterback Shane Brozowski.
Rensselaer players, however, were all quick to point out that defense was their favorite part of the game and holding other teams off the scoreboard just might be their biggest strength.
3. Fort Edward – Three of their top offensive performers from 2007 graduated in June, but the Flying Forts always seem to make more of less. Fort Edward went 24-7 over the past three seasons and they own the last two Section II titles.
Warrensburg and Whitehall may give Fort Edward a test in the North Division, but the Flying Forts have experience and history on their side.
4. Greenwich – The Witches just barely qualify in Class D this season, with 271 students in grades nine, ten, and eleven, they are four students shy of the 275 cutoff mark. Greenwich was just under .500 at 4-5 in Class C a year ago, but if underclassmen running backs Joe Dauphin and Colby Stout can pick up the slack – the Witches could challenge Canajoharie and Rensselaer for South Division supremacy.
5. Bishop Gibbons – The Golden Knights have not given the fans in Schenectady much to cheer about so far this decade. Gibbons teams have won eight games in the last eight years – four of those coming in 2003.
If the Knights can create running lanes for junior running back Derrick Pitts, a handful of wins is not out of the question.
Class D Week One Schedule
Friday, Sept. 5
Greenwich at Lake George, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 6
Fort Edward at Warrensburg, 1:30 p.m.
Whitehall at Salem, 1:30 p.m.
Rensselaer at Bishop Gibbons, 1:30 p.m.
Saratoga Central Catholic at Canajoharie, 1:30 p.m.
2007 Class D Standings
Canajoharie 6-0 9-1
Fort Edward 5-1 8-3
Rensselaer 4-2 6-3
Whitehall 3-3 4-4
Warrensburg 2-4 3-6
Salem 1-5 1-8
Bishop Gibbons 0-6 0-8
-- Will Montgomery