One of the few positives of the end of summer is the start of a new football season. Unfortunately this year, the season is delayed and threatened in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. My conversation with Canisius Head Football Coach Rich Robbins helped to clear up some confusion about the campaign as well as provide some insight into this year’s squad.
Usually, the team is well prepared at this point in the month with multiple weeks of practices and maybe even a couple games; however, New York State has banned any in-person activity within the team until September 21st. The team can start practicing at that point, but competing against other schools is still prohibited.
“We hope to be able to start playing games in early to mid October,” says Robbins. “Hopefully, [we can] get some games in then and play through Thanksgiving and almost up to Christmas.”
Currently, it looks like the squad will only compete against local teams for about seven matchups. The program was scheduled to travel to Boston, Erie, and even Canada to play other gridiron powerhouses, but they’ll have to stick to Monsignor Martin and local public school opponents for now. Despite the lack of travel, a tough road remains ahead of the Crusaders. St. Francis is the most notable adversary, splitting two close games with Canisius last year. Senior quarterback Jake Ritts is a strong leader for the St. Francis team who should be complemented by transfer running back and Tennessee Volunteer commit Jimmy Scott. St. Joe’s always shows up against their rival, going 1-1 against them last year. The Marauders team is led by their new coach, Michael Corona, from St. Joseph by-the-Sea in Staten Island. Canisius will be playing these two major programs as well as a lesser-known team: Bennett High School.
“Bennett has been a powerhouse in public school football for the last several years. We’re supposed to play against them at All High Stadium on their home turf so that’ll certainly be challenging.”
A tough schedule is a good fit for a tough roster. Canisius finished 7-5 last year, recording a 7-2 record in their last nine games, climbing back from a three seed to win the Monsignor Martin Championship, and coming back to defeat Cardinal Hayes in the New York State Championship. Offensively, many of the key players from last year have returned. Quarterback Tyler Baker ‘22 returns with his two primary wideouts, Nik McMillan ‘22 and Riley Simpson ‘21, as well as backfield threat Joe Dixon ‘21. Max Dowling ‘21 also returns at tight end after “gaining muscle and confidence through basketball” over the offseason. As always, some newcomers look to make their mark on the roster. Williamsville North transfer Zaire Leonard ‘22 will be a threat in the backfield or as a receiver in the coming months. Gavin Susfolk ‘22 is a tight end from Akron who will give defenses coverage problems as well. In addition, Michael Doctor ‘23 may emerge in the passing game after a solid season at the JV level.
On defense, the Crusaders are just as exciting. The losses of key linebackers like C.J. Ozolins ‘20 and Grant Taylor ‘20 may be deceiving, but the position is as strong as ever, according to Robbins.
“We did lose a lot of linebackers. That’s probably the area, from the outside [looking] in, that people would say, ‘Geez, Canisius lost a lot of linebackers. What are they going to have there?’”
Apparently, the team has a lot there. Brayden Vandenberg ‘22 is “moving very well and doing some good things” at the position. Amier Mohammad ‘21 and Rod Miller ‘22 are another two returning players at the position while Sam Whistler ‘22 and Cureem Hathcock ‘23 come from JV. Transfer Nicholas Ciriello ‘22 “is a kid who jumps out right away” and should complement the returners. In the secondary, Riley Simpson ‘21 and David Medley ‘21 should also give opposing receivers some trouble this season.
The linemen are always a focal point of the Canisius team. On offense, seniors Andrew Kerwin ‘21, Stephen Dobrasz ‘21 and Drevon Shaw ‘21 should be able to keep Baker safe in the pocket. Defensively, the University of Buffalo stole Donovan Cornelius ‘20 away, but Shaw and Malachi Charleston ‘21 should pick up where he left off. For the second straight year, Robbins believes that the strong point of the team is the line.
“A lot of the same guys that we had last year that made it a strength are back this year, so it’s only more of a strength at this point with all of the experience that they’ve gained over the last year.”
Robbins also made it a point that senior leadership is a key, with players like Dixon, Simpson, and Charleston looking to take charge.
Even with a strong roster, it may be challenging out of the gate for most teams due to a lack of practices and meetings. Robbins doesn’t think this is true for the Crusaders.
“We’ve been doing a lot of online stuff for months, so from that standpoint, with the playbook and mentally, I think we’re in a good place. We have a very experienced team, guys that know what we do and what it takes, so I think we’ll be okay.”
The team needs to practice ten times before competing, according to New York State rules. Robbins believes that their online training schedule, chalk talk sessions, and film study should be able to prepare them for a shortened preseason.
Hopefully, the season can begin soon and run smoothly. The coaching staff is large enough to handle sanitizing duties and help the players follow school protocols like temperature checks
and social distancing. Unfortunately, the squad can’t defend their state championship, but they can still add to their Monsignor Martin banner.
“If this was a regular year, this is an undefeated, state championship, nationally ranked team. That’s the really tough part for me. [We] get right to the starting line just to not get to go out there. It’s tough because I really do think that this is a special team, and it would have been a state championship caliber year. I’m proud of our team: they’ve continued to work hard and faced this adversity like Crusaders.”