LOCKPORT — Six straight losing seasons can weigh heavily on a program and it's players. For the Lions, they seems to use it as fuel.
Lockport football will be looking to get back on track after a 1-7 record in 2018. Despite just two wins since 2016, there is a quiet confidence and sense of hope around the team. Quarterback Nick Cacia and wide receiver Josh Cooper are looking to lead this year's group as one of the more promising passing tandems in Western New York.
"Our offense, it looks good again," Cascia said. "(We're looking) maybe to not correct on everything but we're pushing through with it. We've gotta be vocal, a lot more than last year. We never really had to step up and teach anyone. Now it's like, every once in a while, we've gotta correct how they do their slant(s) and angle(s) or how they do everything else. It's different."
Cooper has the same mindset, believing in the group that the Lions have brought together this year and how he and his QB can lead it.
"We've got a whole new, different team this year. So we've gotta show them what to do and everything," Cooper said. "But other than that, I think we'll be straight on offense. We've got a lot of key players. Our running games actually kind of looking good this year. You know we're gonna throw the ball. Hopefully we win more than one game this year."
Last year's Lions had a potent offensive attack, averaging 26.5 points per game. Cascia set several records in '18, including single-season passing yards (2,128), passing touchdowns (16) and completions (125). He is already the school's all-time passing yardage leader (2,536).
A big piece of that strong passing game was all-state WR Malik Brooks. The Class AA North Offensive Player of the Year was a first team All-WNY selection after a record breaking season, setting school records of 47 receptions, 13 receiving touchdowns and a Section VI-record 1,244 receiving yards.
For Cooper, Brooks is not the only Division I player that he has tried to learn from in his path. He also has the luxury of being able to lean on his brother, Jalin, who is entering his second season with the Toledo Rockets.
After a solid 2018 campaign (349 yards receiving, 3 TDs, 18.3 yards per catch), the senior wideout is ready to carry the torch and step into the No. 1 receiver role.
"I'm hoping to break some of Malik Brooks' records," Cooper said, very jokingly. "But besides that I just want to win, honestly. I just want to win some games."
Cascia has no problem spreading the ball around and looks to do so with this year's receiving core.
"I always look to spread the ball around but it was a nice little something to rely on (when throwing to Brooks)," Cascia said. "I trust everyone. I can get the ball around to anyone, so my guys will be good."
At the end of the day, the reason most kids get into the game for one reason — to win. And that's exactly what the team's signal-caller expects for 2019.
"(To) win. I think we can win a lot more," Cascia said. "I think we'll put up a lot more competitive games than last year. I think we can be in the playoffs if we really make that push and show maturity throughout the season."
Head coach Trait Smith is working with some youth behind him, bringing up Bill Morrello and Matt Harrington from the junior varsity staff as his assistant coaches and continuing to work alongside offensive coordinator Danny Barrancotta. Smith enjoys the youthful exuberance they bring, helping them build more of a connection with their roster.
"It's nice to have the young blood because they're closer in age to a lot of these kids," Smith said. "And (they bring) a lot of enthusiasm. They're willing to help these kids out wherever they can and that's what we want. We're here for the kids.
"I've been here 22 years and only two kids went to the NFL. So we're building characters for the community people and not for football. I mean football's just a bonus."
Although Smith has spent the last 22 years coaching up players like David Fluellen and Daren Stone, last year marked his first experience with head coaching duties. Not having been tasked with certain responsibilities in years prior, Smith has a newfound respect for those who have worked in this position before him.
"Seeing a lot of things that Mr. (Greg) Bronson did (and) Mr. (Matt) Vermette," Smith said, things that I haven't really known behind the scenes like the paperwork and the interviews and the college(s) and the recruiting. All those things, it's new to me but I enjoy it. It's fun."
"It's a hard job, don't get me wrong," he continued. "... I figure give back to the program that gave to me so much when I was a kid."
Smith said he recently spoke with Brooks as he's sifting his way through his first fall camp at Monmouth University. With the likes of Brooks, running back Jalyn Jones and wide receiver Nico Haney gone due to graduation, the veteran head coach will lean on his tandem of Cascia and Cooper.
Smith also has a few players in mind that should command some attention this fall.
"Julius Williams, great kid, he's opened our eyes a lot at camp," Smith said regarding to 'Juice' Williams, who should see time on both sides of the ball as a receiver and safety. "Devin Powell-Wiley's stepped up this year. We've got a lot of kids starting to step up. Yeah, you lose those great players but the rotation comes in. Hopefully those great ones from the JV step up and fill in those roles."
Powell-Wiley should see a load of touches this season, splitting time in the slot and out of the backfield with Ricky Maye and Joseph Taylor Jr. Taylor is the son of local kickboxing champion “The Son of a Legend” Joe Taylor.
With more on his plate as a head coach, Smith said he felt it hindered his ability to call plays as the defensive coordinator. Smith will do more overseeing and administering this season with Harrington handling the play-calling duties now, looking to rebound from last season's 49 points allowed per game average.
With the Lions getting a full season on their newly added turf field, the hope is that the team can bring a competitive brand of football back to Max D. Lederer field.
For more from sports reporter Khari Demos, follow him on Twitter @riri_demos