By David Yarger
Last season, the Niagara-Wheatfield Falcons faced one of the most difficult schedules in Class AA of Section VI, going against state title runner up Lancaster on the road, and sectional runner up Williamsville North at home. This year, the Falcons were classed as A1, and coach Russ Nixon hoped the team could improve off of last season.
The Falcons finished 3-6 last year and proved to be one of the most dominant offenses in Class AA, as the team posted 2,646 rushing yards and 48 touchdowns on 380 carries, and averaged around 28.6 points per game. The downfall was the defense, which let up 40.7 points per game. Nixon was confident that his young defense from last year would be better this season.
"Last year one of things we had was a lot of youth on defense," Nixon said. "We had a lot of first-year underclassmen stepping in and getting a lot of defensive minutes for us, and the silver lining was we knew that experience when they came back as seniors would help them be even more prepared."
Nixon added that experience has led the team to install new defensive schemes that they haven't been able to run in a few years.
On the offensive side of the ball, Nixon told his team over the past few years, the Falcons have run the ball almost 80 percent of the time. Nixon expected the offense to be a little more "50/50" with the passing game.
"We know over the last few years that we've been a run heavy team and if we're aware of that, so are our opponents. We've talked about the best way for us to make an opponent respect our ability, is to be more even. Make them respect that we can pass, and will pass and we'll find success passing, so they can't put eight guys in the box and totally negate a whole part of an offense," Nixon said.
Offensively, the team returns quarterback Jordan Parks, who will take on a larger hybrid role as a senior and rushed for 997 yards last season, as well as running backs Jake DeWolf and Nick Stott.
Nixon will be faced with replacing some key offensive linemen in Bryan Lucinski, Justin Stickney and Jacob Ambrosia, as well as running back Josh Brown, who carried the ball 118 times last season for 813 yards and nine touchdowns.
"It's always a tall order to find guys who are going to replace (guys), but that's the beautiful thing about high school sports - someone is in the wings waiting, and now they're gonna get their chance to step up and show what they can do," Nixon said.
On the line, the Falcons return Jake Leising and Kevin Halford, who both played substantial minutes as juniors.
Other returners Nixon expected to have big season included Noah Mixon, Tommy Peltier, Kevin Cannon and Noah Bennett.
Tommy Peltier receives a pitch from Chris Gordon III.
Oddly enough, Nixon said the closing of Niagara Catholic High School landed him a couple players, including Raejuan Smith, who Nixon spoke highly of.
"(He) gives us some good speed on outside; he's physical, he's aggressive, so it gives us the opportunity to play some man coverage with him," Nixon said.
Coach Russ Nixon teaching his players.
The Falcons will be missing and thinking of a fellow teammate and friend this season, though. N-W went through tough times when Michael Ziegler tragically passed away this past winter. "Ziggy," as the team called him, was linebacker for the Falcons football team. Many of the N-W players will don "MZ" or his football number "42" on their cleats this season. Players are also in talks of a helmet decal to honor Ziggy. Nixon said Ziggy will always be with the team.
"He's always in our hearts, always in our minds. ... I started thinking about him last week and to deal with that tragedy it showed us the importance of that family concept in this game. We looked at each other and we weren't sure how we would get through it, but we knew we would get through it together. ... We know that we're going to continue to remember Mikey and love Mikey together and (he'll) always be a part of this family."
The Falcons open up their season at Terry Harvey Field on the N-W campus at 2 p.m. Saturday versus North Tonawanda.
Chris Gordon III throws the deep ball during a recent practice.