Friday, November 27, 2009

The day BH-BL football changed course

I don't usually get the pleasure of writing about my alma mater, Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, but thinking about the Spartans' second trip to the Carrier Dome in as many years got me thinking.

I think I know the exact day Burnt Hills' success on the gridiron began.

Turn back the clock to the fall of 2000. Our JV team had just finished a second straight 1-8 season and the varsity team went 2-7. The mood wasn't great as we handed our in pads and helmets that November.

Rather than have the annual banquet at the Holiday Inn in Saratoga Springs, Burnt Hills head coach Ed Ronca switched the location to the Ballston Lake Baptist Church just across Lakehill Road from Stevens Elementary. Unlike most years, it was closed to parents. Players and coaches only were invited to a special meeting.

There were some funny things that happened that night. Varsity players exchanged gag gifts and we traded funny stories from the season. On the other hand, it was a very somber occasion. This was not your typical end-of-season party because the program had, in effect, hit rock bottom.

I don't remember exactly what was said or what happened in the basement of that church, but in a few short hours, the mood surrounding the program changed, excitement was built and many players hit the weight room and camps in the following months.

The next season, Ronca's final year at the helm, Burnt Hills won its first eight games before losing to La Salle in the Section II Class A semis. The Spartans lost in the semis a year later at Amsterdam under then first-year head coach Matt Shell. A foundation for success had been built.

Matt Shell's personal story has been well-documented. His brilliance as a coach - both as a leader and an offensive whiz - is perhaps overshadowed by his circumstances. He, his coaching staff (Jason LaPietro, Shawn Kline and Pete Parisi, longtime BH-BL assistants all) and certainly all of his players deserve the credit for making back-to-back trips to Syracuse.

But what Ed Ronca did in the fall of 2000, when he took a bold step in shaking up the status quo of the program, was the first step on Burnt Hills' journey to the Carrier Dome. Many of today's players may not remember his name or have ever seen a game he coached, but they owe a small part of their trip to Ronca's long tutelage at Burnt Hills.

Ed Ronca, who coached the Burnt Hills varsity football team from 1985 to 2001 is now retired from teaching and works at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

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