WEEDSPORT — Around this time last year, when most teams are preparing for another season of football, Weedsport wasn't sure it would have a team.
Fast forward to now, it's a different story.
In their first year of 8-man football, the Warriors finished the regular season undefeated and won the Section III 8-man title. Because of that, enthusiasm for football around town is growing and Weedsport has a program on the rise.
"We had a team meeting and the first thing I said to them was that I really can't believe where we're at," said second-year head coach Jon Sgarlata. "We were in such dire straits last year and we really needed a life raft with this 8-man football."
Sgarlata, who also coaches Weedsport's varsity boys basketball team, inherited a difficult situation. Taking over for longtime coach Greg Michaels, Sgarlata showed up for the beginning of fall practice last year only to find far less players in attendance than expected. Instead of forfeiting the season, the school district requested to drop down to Section III's 8-man league, a request that was granted.
As the community jostled over the fact that its storied football program, which won a state title in 2004, would drop down to 8-man, Sgarlata was studying how to strategically transition his team.
Now with a year of experience under their belt and a year of 8-man film to study from, Sgarlata is excited about what's to come in 2019.
"I think last year, a lot of what we were trying to do — it wasn't just low numbers, but we were really inexperienced. We were trying to get really good at a few things," Sgarlata said. "We're way ahead of where we were last year. We're trying to add more complexity to our schemes."
Weedsport only lost two players to graduation, but both were crucial on both sides of the ball. Max Horsford was the team's leading rusher and scorer offensively, and the leading tackler defensively. Ty Follett was a starting lineman and led the team in sacks and tackles for loss. Both were named to the inaugural 8-man all-state team.
Traditionally a run-oriented team, Weedsport might show off a more dangerous passing attack this year. Sgarlata recruited former Port Byron/Union Springs head coach Rob Piascik to run the offense, and he'll be working with second-year starter Owen Mabbett.
"I anticipate throwing it considerably more this year. I would put it at 90% more than we did last year," Sgarlata said. "We're gonna take advantage of a 6-5 quarterback that most teams don't have. We keep joking that (Mabbett's) like a typical quarterback in the Pac-12. Just a big, tall kid that can throw it like 60 yards. He's like (Los Angeles Rams quarterback) Jared Goff ... a tall, skinny white guy."
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That excites some, like senior tight end Joel Blumer, who joked about having more chances to catch the ball. He added, "I don't care how we're playing football, I just care that we're playing football. That's the most important thing, just getting out there and having fun."
Others, like linemen Justin Skellington and Alex Nemec, think the smash mouth style of football will still be important.
Said Nemec, "Handing the ball off up the middle has kind of been Weedsport's thing for awhile."
"It seemed to work out pretty well for us," Skellington said.
Weedsport will get an early idea of what kind of team it has this year. The Warriors open up the season at home Sept. 20 against Altmar-Parish-Williamstown in a rematch of last year's 8-man section title game, which Weedsport won 30-18. The Warriors' next two games are at home against Bishop Grimes on Sept. 27 and West Canada Valley on Oct. 4.
The final three games of the regular season are all on the road, at New York Mills, at Section IV's Trumansburg and at Morrisville-Eaton.
There's still no official state tournament in New York for 8-man football, and the NYSPHSAA will continue its regional format where the section champions will play one extra game as a regional championship.
Weedsport played in a regional title game last year, but couldn't keep pace with Section V's Oakfield-Alabama/Elba, which prevented the Warriors from a perfect season.
This year, the goal is to do better.
"We want to have a better season than last year," Blumer said. "That's always the goal. We want to be there for every single game, come out and win every single game."