SANBORN — Great programs aren’t built in a year. Niagara Wheatfield head coach Russ Nixon is well aware of that.
The Falcons are coming off their strongest season in recent years. They were able to put together a 6-3 record, only the second time reaching that win total since 2004. The formula to victory was rather simple: run the ball and run some more. Led by dual-threat quarterback Jordan Parks (901 rushing yards, 10 rushing touchdowns, 11.0 yards per carry) and senior tailback Nick Stott (621 yards, 7 rushing TDs, 6.1 YPC), NW was able maul opponents with an average of 208.7 yards per game on the ground.
Nixon wants to keep adding to what he has already built up, leading the Falcons to records of .500 or better in two of his first three seasons.
“Just continuing to build on the culture of the program,” Nixon said. “Guys are gonna come in, they’re gonna work hard, that they’re gonna give us maximum effort, they’re gonna be coachable athletes and just continue to learn the game of football and when we make mistakes, we’re gonna clean it up. That’s the name (of the game) — try not to make the same mistake over and over.”
Twenty-four seniors graduated from last season’s team, including Parks, Stott, Jacob DeWolf and Josh Thibeault. Dewolf led the team with 78 total tackles, tied for the team high with three interceptions, had one fumble recovery and a forced fumble. Thibeault finished third on the team with 45 tackles and also recorded one fumble recovery and forced a fumble.
“It’s gonna be a collective effort obviously,” Nixon said. “... We’ve got some young guys coming up to fill those gaps though and they’re excited to have the opportunity to play up on varsity and get a chance to show what they can do on the big stage.”
Under center this season will be Evan Stickney and Chris Gordon. Gordon, entering his senior year, will get the opportunity to run the show after splitting time with Parks at QB last year. He finished as the team’s leader in completions (43), touchdown passes (4) and passing yardage (631).
“I’m ready to go out there and get some Ws,” Gordon said. “Just focus on the upcoming games and be ready for the season.”
Gordon will be trying to help mold a young roster as many of his teammates get their first crack the the varsity level.
“We’ve just gotta make sure they work hard at their fullest and keep pushing them,” Gordon said. “I expect a lot from them. They know what to do and (we’ll) make sure we come out on top.”
Another Falcons leader this year should be Griffin Cornwell. The senior middle linebacker finished as NW’s second-leading tackler with 51 stops and placed third on the team with three tackles for loss. Cornwell, who will also start at tight end on offense, wants to help lead this group after bringing up so many players from the JV level.
“I’m looking to (be) a leader, like you said. Someone who can take the responsibility of some of the guys who left because we did lose a lot of seniors,” Cornwell said. “And we’ve got a lot of young guys coming up. I expect to build (on) what Coach Nixon, and the rest of the coaches, have been doing for the past few years.”
Cornwell sees the young group growing and taking the steps needed to get up to speed for opening night, tonight against North Tonawanda.
“They’re learning really well. They’re focused, I love their drive and they’re really coachable,” Cornwell said. “Everyone listens when a coach is talking, no one else is talking; we pay attention. And they’re really keeping up. I love the way we’re going.”
Cornwell feels that the team has no ceiling and that they can “go all the way” if they remain focused and maintain a level of diligence. Similarly to Cornwell, Nixon also feels that the group’s coachability has helped it along in its development.
“This group’s very coachable (and) they want to learn,” Nixon said. “They’re receptive to coaching. They understand that it’s not about pointing out what they’re doing wrong; it’s about correcting it so that the next time we play faster and we think a little bit less when we’re on the field and we can play our most effective, physical, fast brand of football.”
Another key name Nixon said to watch out for a breakout year was defensive end Bobby Zito, who is entering his third year at the varsity level. Nixon believes that opportunities are up for grabs with the team this year and he hopes to see who can step up and take advantage.
“That’s the beautiful thing about it. Like I said, there’s a lot of opportunities for guys to step out on the field and get reps and have a chance to be out there when Week 1 starts,” Nixon said.
“So we’re excited to see those guys keep battling, keep fighting and fill in to those roles.”
For more from sports reporter Khari Demos, follow him on Twitter @riri_demos.