The NFL season is set to heat up this weekend, and not just on national football fields.
No, the Niagara Frontier League girls soccer season is in full bloom and four teams likely to be in the hunt for league and sectional championships at the end of the year are set to battle within the span of a little more than a week.
Grand Island, Lewiston-Porter, Niagara Wheatfield and North Tonawanda all square off between today and Sept. 22. The Falcons are the defending NFL champions after winning the league for the first time in more than 30 years last season, as well as the reigning Section VI Class A1 champion.
Meanwhile, the Lancers won Class A2 last season and dropped to Class B this fall. The 2020 NFL runner-up Vikings and Lumberjacks should both contend for league and sectional crowns as brutal early-season slates bring playoff implications.
“The girls are always pumped to play them and any win or loss is huge,” Niagara Wheatfield head coach James Blankenship said. “They’ve always been the heavyweights in the league and it’s definitely going to be an amped up game. … Preseason jitters are out of the way. It’s easy to become a champion, it’s harder to stay there.”
Lew-Port certainly desires to win an NFL title, but it has a bigger picture in mind throughout the regular season — winning a sectional championship. Winning the NFL would certainly put the Lancers in prime position entering sectionals, but there is not great urgency in early-season games. That especially rings true when they play division opponents Grand Island and North Tonawanda — both much larger schools — twice.
In order to reach the NFL championship game, Lew-Port must get points and eventually beat Grand Island and North Tonawanda in the Frontier division. Grand Island beat and tied the Lancers last season, while Niagara Wheatfield handed them their other loss last year.
Playing in Class B, Lew-Port has competition that fewer other schools can boast to prepare for sectionals and that is the primary goal.
“We have all season to work on our shape and discipline,” Lew-Port head coach Norman Forney said. “We want to get that settled as quickly as possible, because we want to win every game that we possibly can. Nobody wants to beat Grand Island and Niagara Wheatfield as much as I do, but in the end, what really matters is a sectional title.”
As Lew-Port and Niagara Wheatfield aim to defend sectional championships, Grand Island is looking to reverse its fortunes from the end of last season. The Vikings blew through the regular season with an 11-0-1 record, only to lose their final two games, to the Falcons in the NFL championship and Hamburg in the Class A1 playoffs.
Grand Island has been hit with injuries multiple times at critical points in recent seasons, so remaining healthy down the stretch will be its main goal in attempting to dethrone Niagara Wheatfield in league and sectional play.
“Last year was the first time in a long time that we haven’t won a league title and all that,” Grand Island head coach Dave Bowman said. “That game (against Wheatfield) is going to mean a little more to (GI's players) because they’re going to want to grab something back they’ve had a hold of for quite some time. Every game means something because there’s talent in the league and you have to be on your game every day.”
Plenty of powerful players
Not only does the NFL feature some of the top teams in Section VI, it also boasts some of the best players and they have a chance to prove it in the next two weeks. In fact, players from Grand Island, Lew-Port, Niagara Wheatfield and North Tonawanda account for the top-seven scorers in the league.
Grand Island’s Avery Mondoux — who has six goals and six assists this season — and teammate Ella Rudney were All-Western New York selections last season, while Payton Khadra also has six goals thus far.
Lew-Port’s Sarah Woods also made the All-WNY squad, joining teammate Sophie Auer to form one of the top scoring tandems in Section VI. North Tonawanda’s Kylie Miranto is also capable of putting the ball in the net at a high clip.
“It’s pretty cool that you’re starting to hear these names and they’re not all from the ECIC,” Bowman said. “... These girls all know each other from school ball, travel ball or premier ball. They all have their own game within the game. … When discussing how to prepare, the girls have a lot of input as well, because they know the girls, they play with them and they know their strengths and weaknesses. It’s that chess game.”
Niagara Wheatfield, however, will not be relying upon one scorer, particularly after losing All-WNY selection Erin Weir to graduation. Through four games, five Falcons — Maddie Fike, Caitlin Parker, Katelyn Dena, Gwen Jarosz and Gianna Rosati — have at least three goals. Blankenship believes his squad has several of the top players in the section, even though balance may cause statistics to not reflect as much.
“Any team that has 11 girls that can play together anywhere on the field, that’s dangerous,” Blankenship said. “I can take any one of my players and put them anywhere — whether they like it or not — and they can produce. … It’s nice to have utility players that you can put anywhere. My bench is pretty solid this year, too. We have a lot of talent coming off the bench.”
Although all four teams will claw for the top spot in the NFL, they all take representing the league seriously once the postseason begins. Winning the league championship is always a difficult undertaking and the team that does so is usually also in the hunt for a sectional title.
While many of the NFL teams are also battling each other in sectionals, they take pride in other league teams making deep runs into the playoffs.
“There is a possibility that the NFL can contend in three different sectional classifications,” said Forney, who was the WNY coach of the year last season. “I think it’s a testament to the quality of the players in the league and the coaching that we’re in contention for those titles every year. … I took a lot of pride in Wheatfield and we won the Class A classifications last year. It just shows you how strong those programs are.”
Nick Sabato can be reached via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @NickSabatoGNN.
Sept. 10: Grand Island at N. Tonawanda, 7 p.m.
Sept. 11: Lew-Port at Grand Island, 10 a.m.
Sept. 13: N. Tonawanda at Lew-Port (Lew-Port led 2-1 after Sept. 7 called due to weather)
Sept. 16: Nia. Wheatfield at Grand Island, 7 p.m.
Sept. 20: Lew-Port at Nia. Wheatfield, 5 p.m.
Sept. 22: Nia. Wheatfield at N. Tonawanda, 7 p.m.