By Mike Meiler
Niagara Gazette —
The football program at Niagara Falls High School has been on a bit of an upswing over the last few years, winning a playoff game in 2011 and hosting another in 2012.
The road to improvement gets a little tougher in 2013, thanks to changes in Class AA and a brutal schedule that doesn't include a single team that missed the playoffs last year.
A classification rule change dealing with combined teams knocked Buffalo's Riverside and Hutch Tech — both members of Niagara Falls' North Division last season — out of Western New York's largest class, leading to a one-division realignment that will have the Wolverines directly competing against former South Division powers such as Orchard Park and Jamestown.
"We have to play strong, big boy football," said head coach Don Bass. "The South, which is most of our schedule, plays smashmouth football. The North was more finesse and speed. We have to be tougher in order to compete."
The issue for Bass will be preparing a team that's strengths lie in speed and playmaking ability for a different brand of football. Most of Niagara Falls' returning starters fall into skill positions, and Bass called his group of playmakers "as good as any in Western New York."
Back are senior wide receivers Amir Myles and Jaylin Smith, as well as running back Shaolin McCray. The trio gives the Wolverines speed to burn, and each of the three is just as much a threat in the running game as through the air.
"We're going to run the ball," Bass said. "Shaolin worked hard in the offseason, and he's stronger and faster. If we can get him in space he should do alright."
Also in the mix offensively will be DeMarco Scarborough, Antwan Giles, Deonte Paige and Dijay Stone, who transfered in from North Carolina.
Leading the group will be junior quarterback Daveon Cook, who played junior varsity for NFHS two years ago before moving to Texas last season. He'll be tasked with replacing Rickey Bailey, who started behind center each of the past two seasons and is now playing at the University of Rhode Island.
"He's small, but he's big in heart," Bass said of his new QB. "If we can give him time, he'll do fine."
The key to the Wolverines' season will likely be the play of its offensive and defensive lines, which are a work-in-progress, according to Bass.
Senior James Goldston will lead the group, starting at center and defensive tackle. Goldston stands 6-foot-1 and weighs in at over 300 pounds, providing possibly the only size advantage Niagara Falls will hold this season.
Junior Anthony Vargas (6-foot, 230) starts and left tackle and defensive tackle, while Maleik Agee will play guard and middle linebacker. Brian Gardner (6-foot-3, 240) makes his varsity debut after playing JV last season, while Vaquan Bullard fills out the starters on the offensive line.
Defensively, the Wolverines will have to cope with the losses of defensive end Tikere Ralands, defensive tackle Tony Paretto and linebackers Imani Davis and Marcus Johnson, who started as a sophomore last season but transferred out of state.
"We've had to replace some starters, but we've got some guys who have really stepped up," Bass said of his defense. "This group is faster to the ball than last year's defense.
Agee, a third-year varsity player, will step in for Davis at MLB. Scarborough and Quiante Wallace are slotted to start at outside linebacker, while Smith, Myles, McCray, Paige and DaQuria Simmons will hold down spots at defensive back.
Bass said he'll rotate players along the defensive line, including Goldston, Vargas, Josh Belin, DeJaun Jackson and Joe Welch.
"Belin is a bull, the strongest kid on the team," Bass said. "He's new to football, but just using his brute strength he's held his own.
"Jackson is a sophomore with good speed and good technique, and Welch stepped up a lot in the offseason and is filling in nicely stepping in for (Ralands)."
Bass will also have to offset the loss of kicker Kyle Deween, who was the Wolverines' best player on multiple occasions last season, including when he booted the game-winning (and playoff-clinching) field goal against Kenmore West in a 15-14 win. Deween is now kicking at Eric Community College.
"You can't replace him," Bass said. "For 2 1/2 years, he allowed me to coach differently. I was spoiled."
Ryan Gardner will do his best to step into Deween's shoe when the Wolverines start their season at 7 p.m. Friday at Jamestown.Head Coach: Don Bass 2012 Record: 4-5 Key Returnees: WR/S Jaylin Smith, WR/CB Amir Myles, RB/S Shaolin McCray, WR/LB DeMarco Scarborough, C/DT James Golston, G/LB Maleik Agee Key Losses: Rickey Bailey, Tikere Ralands, Imani Davis, Kyle Deween, Marcus Johnson, Tony Paretto Schedule 9/6: at Jamestown, 7 p.m. 9/13: at Frontier, 7 p.m. 9/21: vs. Lancaster, 2 p.m. 9/28: vs. Lockport, noon 10/4: at McKinley (at Riverside), 7 p.m. 10/12: vs. Orchard Park, 2 p.m. 10/18: at Clarence, 7 p.m.