Saratoga Central Catholic returns to varsity football after 20-year absence
SARATOGA SPRINGS Saratoga Central Catholic’s varsity football team had to forfeit its opening game of the 1988 season because it did not have enough players available.
In the six games the Saints took part in that fall, they scored one touchdown.
“That last year, we should have put in a junior varsity schedule,” said Phonsey Lambert, head coach of Saratoga Catholic’s revilalized football program. “It was a tough season. The team had no numbers.”
The Saints do now. With a roster of 34, including 28 underclassmen, Saratoga Catholic will make its first varsity appearance in 20 years Friday night at Canajoharie. Following that game with the defending Section II Class D regular season champs, the Saints travel to six-time area small-school titlist Rensselaer. Home games with Warrensburg and Greenwich at East Side Recreation Field take place the next two weeks.
The Saints won their last varsity contest in 1987, and put together their last winning season in 1975, going 5-3 the year St. Peter’s Academy was renamed Saratoga Central Catholic.
“We have a program that has not lost a game at the modified and junior varsity levels, but before we have consistent success at the next level, we’ll get smashed in the mouth a few times,” Lambert said. “I’m looking at this realistically, and I know what we’re up against. It’s not going to be easy going up against these established programs.”
“What we’ve talked about is, we have a lot to prove,” said senior receiver and safety Dan O’Rourke. “Everyone is saying, ‘A first-year varsity team, they’ll win a couple of games.’ Our goal is to win more than a couple of games.”
Lower level success
The Saints won all seven of their modified games in 2006 with a roster of 19, and went 8-0 as a junior varsity entrant last fall with 24 players. Of this year’s 34 players, the Saints have eight who are back for their third season in juniors Jeremy Furey, Ryan Kramer, Conor Mehan and Dave Mulcahy, sophomores Dylan Anderson, Billy McDonough and Jordan Stubblebine, and freshman John Walsh.
Among those rooting will be 12 girls who form the school’s new cheerleading team.
“To bring it back from the very bottom and have it develop so rapidly, it’s overwhelming,” said Saratoga Catholic principal Chris Signore. “The numbers they have and the success they’ve had, it’s been such a dramatic turn of events. Much credit goes to the coaches involved and the parents’ support.”
“We’ve taken a lot of baby steps, and it’s been neat to watch this thing grow from guys figuring out where knee pads go to now, but we have no false illusions,” said Lambert. “There are going to be days when things don’t turn out the way we’d like. We’ve just got to keep working and believing and stay committed.
“I’m interested to see how the kids are going to react. Knowing them, I have to think it will be in a positive manner.”
“It’s not about getting knocked down. It’s about getting up,” said Spa Catholic assistant coach Pat Gormley, who coached JV ball at Queensbury and Averill Park before joining the Saints this year. “This team is going to have to deal with adversity. How they deal will determine the outcome of games. We’ll see how mentally tough they are.”
“We’ve been playing football for two years, and we don’t know what it’s like to lose,” said Furey, who plays center and linebacker. “If we do, we’ll have to overcome it.”
While some setbacks are sure to come their way, Lambert and his Saints have for two years been preparing to deal their opponents some, as well. They believe they can, yet to what extent is the big unknown.
“You’ve got to respect your opponent, but you don’t bow down to them. I’ve told my guys the other team puts their pads on the same way you do,” Lambert said. “We’re going to try to compete and try to win. I’m a competitive guy, and I put this together with the idea of winning. We’re not just going to show up.”
“I envision this team being competitive because of their
performance at the JV level, and because of what I see in them,” said Gormley, a Spa Catholic alumnus. “The athleticism is there. They’re a coachable group of kids. And they’ve already developed a team chemistry. We’ve got boys in ninth grade and 12th grade, and you don’t see a division.”
The Saints will open up against Canajoharie and Rensselaer teams that went a combined 15-4 in 2007. Canajoharie went 6-0 to win the Class D regular season title and
9-1 overall, losing only to Fort Edward in the Section II championship game.
“Canajoharie and Rensselaer will be true tests,” said Signore. “If we get through the first two games without any major injuries or setbacks, we can have an incredible season. We played them both tough last year, but this is a step up. I have guarded optimism.”
Cairo-Durham was the last Section II school to join the varsity ranks, in 2007, and went 1-8. Hoosic Valley lost its first 16 games after its 2006 varsity debut.
“We’re just trying to get the kids geared up for what’s in front of them. Canajoharie went 9-1 last year and returns a lot of good guys. I know them through baseball,” said Lambert, the school’s athletic director and a 300-plus game winner as its baseball coach. “I’m sure their eyes will be as big as saucers in that first game.”
While Lambert expects his Saints to take some lumps along the way, he’s confident this varsity season will not turn out like the school’s last. The Saints went 0-7 in 1988 and got their only touchdown on a
10-yard pass from Jason Hartman to Brian Ross with 22 seconds left in a Week 6 loss to Poultney.
Saratoga Catholic had to forfeit its first game that year with Broadalbin-Perth because it did not have the state-required 18 players available. The Saints played only two games in 1977 for the same reason and lost them both. Those campaigns were part of a 14-year stretch that saw the Saints go
18-89-6. The best season during that span was in 1980, with a 3-6 finish.
“Opening night is for all of the kids who sacrificed and played in past years,” Lambert said.
Saratoga Catholic’s last varsity victory came in its final game of the 1987 season, 33-18, over Corinth, when Dan Godlewski scored three touchdowns. The Saints went 1-7 that season, and 2-6 before that.
“Athletes weren’t coming out, and the program started to spin downward,” said Lambert, who played fullback and linebacker for the school’s varsity from 1981-83. “It was very sad when this thing ended. It was a big part of my life growing up.”
“You can’t change the past. In the 1980s when the program went under, there was a basketball climate in the school,” said Gormley. “People rallied around the basketball team and they were successful. Football at that point ...”
The Saints went 1-6-2 during Gormley’s senior season in 1984. When Lambert was a senior in 1983, the Saints put together a
“I wouldn’t trade my football experience at Saratoga Catholic for anything,” said Gormley. “It was not all about wins and losses. It was about playing the game. We only had about 21, 22 guys, and a lot of us went both ways. We got to play a lot, and it was a lot of fun.”
Signor was a teammate of Lambert’s on that 1983 edition.
“That was one of the most positive athletic experiences of my life, and I played on a basketball team that year that won 23 games and reached the regionals,” Signore said. “We learned lessons about determination and dedication. That stuff stays with you.”
The football program enjoyed its greatest success from 1972-74 with a combined 23-3 record, and featured such standouts as Jerry Mirro, Rick DeVoe, Mike Hannon, Tony Grant, Rick Phillips, Chuck Grolley, Mark Parisi, Mike Conroy and Skip Izzo. The superb run came under three head coaches, while Frank Crowley — the current principal at Saratoga Springs High School — served as the Saints innovative offensive coordinator.
“We didn’t win the year before,” Mirro, now 52 and the father of five, said of the 1-6-1 1971 team. “After that, we just clicked. It was a phenomenal, phenomenal time, and we were beating schools that were bigger than us. We had phenominal athletes, guys who played three sports together, and we jelled. We were all on the same page.”
Current Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute coach Joe King directed the Saints in 1971 and in 1972, with that group recording six straight shutouts before losing to then fierce rival Hoosick Falls, 8-6. The Saints, quarterbacked by Mike Ebert after Sean McDonald’s W eek 3 shoulder injury, wrapped up a 7-1 campaign by beating Corinth, 20-6.
“There was a questionable call. I scored a touchdown and we went for two,” Mirro, a star running back and lineacker who captained the 1972 and 1973 teams, said of the loss at Hoosick Falls. “My people thought I was in. That motivated us for the following year.”
Coach Jim Van Allen’s 1973 team went 9-0 and led the area in both scoring (238 points) and fewest points allowed (34) en route to a No. 7 state small-school ranking. Mirro and DeVoe led the area in scoring that year with a combined 30 touchdowns, and both produced second-half touchdowns as the Saints rallied for a win in their final game, 14-6, over Cardinal McCloskey.
The Saints rang up five shutouts that year, including a 26-0 thumping of Hoosick Falls.
“I remember the game very well. I ran for three touchdowns against them,” said Mirro, a Port Jefferson resident who played at Fordham and had a short NFL stint with the Cincinnati Bengals. “It was such a big game. They were lined up seven, eight, 10 deep to see that one.”
Coached by Nick Alex and sparked by DeVoe’s running, the Saints went 7-2 in 1974. St. Peter’s also went 5-1-1 in 1960, 5-2 in 1963, and 6-1 in 1966, with that team among the 2007 inductees into the Saratoga Catholic Hall of Fame.
“This school produced some legendary football teams in the area,” said Lambert. “And the legend gets bigger over the years.”
The new Saints will be leaving a lasting mark, too, be it one way or another, in this season of renewal.
“I think we can go pretty far,” said Jack Keller, a sophomore linebacker and offensive lineman. “We’ve got a lot of athletes and speed. We all get along. I think we can hold our own with all the things we have going for us.”
“It’s definitely a step up. We’ll see bigger kids and better athletes than last year, but we can do it,” said Furey. “We’ve prepared ourselves, and going undefeated the last two years has to help us. We believe in ourselves.”
Based on the new state-regulated enrollment figures in grades nine through 11, Saratoga Catholic will be the smallest school in Section II and the third smallest in the New York competing in football this year, with 84 students. Rome Catholic of Section III and DeSales of Section V have enrollments (in grades 9-11) of 59 and 79, respectively.
“All of the Class D teams face the numbers game. The biggest thing is you’ve got to stay healthy,” Lambert said. “You utilize time outs differently. You condition athletes differently. You don’t have full contact all week in practice.”
But in this physical game, injuries do occur.
“You can talk about what you have on paper, but it never comes out that way,” Lambert said. “You’ve got to prepare guys to play two or three positions. Guys will have to adapt. What we try to do is have two players ready for each position, so you’ve got coach every kid.”
Many of those kids on the opposite scrimmage line are going to have advantages in size, age and varsity experience over the Saints.
“We’ve got to be disciplined. Avoid penalties and turnovers,” Lambert said. “We did a lot of fundamental things right last year, and I’m looking for that to carry over. What we don’t want to do is hurt ourselves.”
“We have to do everything we can. Every little thing has to be perfect. We can’t have a bad game and expect to pull out a win,” said O’Rourke. “Last year I didn’t know how good we’d be, and we did very well. We’ve got basically the same guys coming back, so it can be done with a lot of hard work.”
That’s what it took to get the football program going once again.
“We had a bunch of kids who pushed the envelope. They had a petition with 14 names on it. I didn’t want to get involved because I had just got out of coaching at South Glens Falls,” said Lambert, who had earlier revitalized both the baseball and girls’ basketball programs at Spa Catholic. “They asked if I would consider it, so I called [assistant coach] Murry O’Neil for some advice. We got together, priced things out, and took it to our principal. He [Signore] had it put on the agenda for the school board, and it caught on. The rest is history.”