Last Nov. 10, Sandy Creek suffered what senior fullback/linebacker John Shirley called a devastating loss.
Not only were the Comets overwhelmed by Section 4 champion Tioga 54-13 in a state Class D regional game, they also felt a little depressed for giving such a poor showing just a week after capturing the schools first Section 3 crown.
But if nothing else, that game showed those Comets returning this season what they needed to do to reach Tiogas level. Said Shirley: We were back in the weight room that Monday with the sole purpose of getting bigger, faster and stronger.
To that end, with veterans returning at almost every position on both sides of the ball, and a spring and summer of nonstop conditioning, the 2013 Comets under veteran coach Mike Stevens are in a position they havent been the team to beat.
Weve been very competitive over the years, Stevens said. But weve never been the team with the bulls-eye on their back. This year, thats us. Everybody is going to give us their best shot because of what we accomplished last season. So even though we have a lot of talent, we have to be prepared for every game and take care of our own business.
Starting with one of the biggest and talented offensive and defensive fronts in all of Section 3, not just Class D, and ending with veteran, quick skill position performers that can make big plays on every snap, and you have a team that will be tough to beat.
Matt Ennist is a 6-foot-4, 325-pound junior guard who is already drawing major interest from colleges all over. He is teamed with fellow senior guard Connor Rowell (290), standout sophomore tackle Zac Akey (6-3, 286) and the small man in the group, senior center Dakota Densmore at just 215 pounds.
We want them to be a physical presence and dominate the line of scrimmage, Stevens said. Those guys really learned a lot last season, and our expectations are that they will be even better this time.
Senior quarterback Tyler Swarthout made tremendous progress last season and now is an established leader who can run and pass with great efficiency.
Senior fullback Shirley and explosive junior Cameron Hall form a dynamic backfield, that will also include standout linebacker Jake Benedict, who will see backfield duty for the first time.
Stevens really likes the potential of sophomore Kyle Fayette, who will play some quarterback, wingback and wide receiver; and junior tight end Zach Halsey can make plays with good hands and speed.
Last year, Sandy Creeks defense was its strongest unit, allowing just 48 points in five conference games. This season, it could be even better with that strong defensive front, tackling machines at linebacker in Benedict and Shirley, and veterans in the secondary.
We need to be focused every game and play together, said Benedict, a Times first-team All-North selection. Our goal is be prepared for every game like its the sectional finals.
Shirley said he doesnt feel the extra pressure of taking the field as the defending sectional champions. Now we know we can do it, and what it takes, he said.
Stevens said the pressure to finally claim that first sectional crown a year ago was probably as much as well ever face. So this year we can just go out and play and work hard, knowing we can accomplish our goal if we stay together and execute.
However, Class D may be even tougher this season with Class C-2 champion Herkimer as well as Tully moving down in class. Sandy Creek will be challenged in its own Class D Central by always tough Westmoreland, which it beat in last years sectional final, as well as perennial Class D powers Dolgeville and Weedsport out of the East and West divisions, respectively.
Senior Grace Wallace is one of the Comets newcomers. She was the teams film person last year and decided to try out this season.
Shes never played football, so it was a shock to her how tough preseason was, Stevens said. But she made it through and now we hope to get here in some games.
Sandy Creek opens at Beaver River.
Sandy Creek Comets
2012 record: 10-1, 5-0 Class D Central.
Coach: Mike Stevens (15th year, 93-71, 20th overall).
Players to watch: Tyler Swarthout (Sr., QB/DB, 22-49, 385, 4 TD); John Shirley (Sr., FB/LB, 82-505, 5 TD); Cameron Hall (Jr., RB/DB, 32-292, 5 TD); Jake Benedict (Sr., FB/LB); Zac Akey (So., OL/DL); Matt Ennist (Jr., OL/DL); Connor Rowell (Sr., OL/DL); Bobby Cornell (Sr., RB/DB); Kyle Fayette (Jr., QB/RB/DB); Zach Halsey (Jr., TE/DE).
Section 3 preview
While Sandy Creek is almost certain to vy for a second straight Section 3 title in Class D, several other area teams will also be legitimate contenders.
In Class A, Indian River and Watertown are both in rebuilding modes and may not be quite as strong challengers as in the past few years.
A deep and talented Carthage club is likely to step up as a major contender in a class that is annually among the toughest in the section.
Defending Class A champion Nottingham, runner-up Jamesville-DeWitt and perennial contender Whitesboro figure to be in the title running again.
While General Brown has dominated Class C North of late, look for experienced clubs from Immaculate Heart Central and Lowville to possibly jump over the Lions this season.
General Brown does get Steve Fisher back on the sidelines, but has one of the most inexperienced teams in recent memory. IHC, which finished runner-up to General Brown the last two seasons, and Lowville, which made it all the way to the Class C-2 title game a year ago, should both be explosive offensively and tough defensively to make title runs.
Defending Class C champion Skaneateles and Bishop Ludden appear strong again, while Canastota, Utica Notre Dame and Frankfort-Schuyler might be among the other Class C contenders.