Canisius football gaining steam with Niagara County products

James Hibbard/ContributorCanisius football players Tyler Baker, "JoJo" Dixon, Riley Simpson and Amier Mohammad, Niagara County natives, pictured here on Thursday at Canisius High School in Buffalo.

TONAWANDA — Just like that Canisius football has gotten back on track.

The Crusaders were able to smother Cardinal O'Hara, 47-0, last Saturday to close out their regular season schedule. Following an 0-3 start, Canisius (4-5, 2-2 MM) has won four of the last six outings.

Credit lies in the hands of some of their top players, who happen to hail from Niagara County. Sophomore QB and Lockport native Tyler Baker has been one of the state's top dual-threat signal callers, passing for 1,434 yards, 12 TDs to only 7 INTs and also rushing for another 773 yards and 10 TDs.

RB Joseph Dixon, Niagara Falls native, has been a steady presence on the ground too. "JoJo" added two TDs on Saturday to reach 13 for the season and he's accounted for 1,043 all-purpose yards (628 rushing, 202 receiving, 213 kick/punt return).

One of the team's top wideouts has been Riley Simpson. After making a name for himself last season with Starpoint, Simpson has come in and complemented Nik Mcmillan. Simpson has recorded 32 receptions, 557 yards and two TDs, all of which place second on the team behind Mcmillan. He also leads the team with two fumble recoveries, is tied for the team lead with four pass breakups and he is third overall with 29 stops.

Amier Mohammad, Lockpot native, has also been finding has legs as the season has played out. After a slow start, Mohammad has been seeing un uptick in his usage and he finished as the team's leading tackler with five in the win over the Hawks.

The kids talked about their transitions and how they've fit in thus far.

"At first you've gotta adapt to the changes coming from public schools," Simpson said. "But I've enjoyed them. ... The more intense practices, the more intense competition around you. You've gotta fight for your job, so it just makes everybody a better player."

"I'm just thankful for the opportunities that I got to come to Canisius," Dixon said, who will also wrestle for the school. "It's really like an impact on my life. Like as a man and as a football player."

Mohammad opened up about coming in with someone like Baker, who he grew up with. He also shared his thoughts about joining forces with guys like Simpson and Dixon, who he battled against at rival high schools.

"We played against each other, so I'm like this is gonna be really good," Mohammad said. " ... And I grew up with Tyler. So I'm like yeah that's gonna be a really good team right there."

Simpson, who is the son of University at Buffalo linebackers/defensive run game coordinator Chris Simpson, talked about how his path led to him becoming a Crusader.

"I didn't grow up here, I moved around a lot," Simpson said, since his father's coaching stops have landed him in Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska. " ... But ever since I moved here we've been playing Lockport. (I've) been playing Tyler and Amier since eighth grade, freshman year. So I knew that these dudes were ballers and the opportunity to come play with them on the same team ... It was just too good to pass up."

Mohammad, Baker and Dixon mentioned how they battled when the three were coming up in the Cataract and Lockport Little Loop programs. Baker even recalled a game-winning TD that Dixon scored to down Lockport (a play in which he juked out Baker).

"We're not gonna talk about that," Baker said, as he caused the group to erupt in laughter.

Hearing of Baker, Mohammad and Simpson coming in, this made Dixon strongly consider attending Canisius, so he could "join the ride too."

Canisius head coach Rich Robbins is well aware of the talent in Niagara County and he's appreciative of how this group has produced.

"We've got a lot of Niagara County guys. Tough kids and (they) work hard," Robbins said, who also has Niagara Falls native Antwain Gandy-Benavides on his roster. 

"They've really enjoyed being in our program, our facilities, our coaching. Kind of playing some Pennsylvania and Ohio and out-of-state competition. All those kids love football, so they want to compete at the highest level and they all have aspirations to play some ball in college. So Canisius was the right choice for them."

Robbins has built one of the strongest programs in all of New York, but this year had its challenges with building up a young core. The team is hot right now though.

Perfect timing heading into a rematch against arch-nemesis St. Joe's this Saturday.

"It's exciting for us. We know that St. Francis and St. Joe's are very senior heavy this year. We're very young and we were still right there in both games," Robbins said, who will be looking to avenge the team's 32-21 loss to the Marauders from Sept. 21. "And I think as our young team has developed and learned a little bit more about what it takes to be a varsity football player, hopefully we're kind of hitting our stride here at the right time before the playoffs. And I know everybody's excited to get another chance at St. Joe's."

Their head coach couldn't be more right about how his players feel.

"The biggest thing is preparation and getting focus from not even Monday, but from now until that game," Dixon said, who was held to a season-low in rushing against the Marauders. "We have to be focused, locked in mentally and just perform our best. I know that we will. I believe that our team will do it."

The 2019-20 senior class is on their minds too, which has the guys wanting to give them a proper farewell.

"As soon as that clock hit zero it's Joe's week," Baker said. "We want the seniors to keep on playing. We want to put a ring on their fingers before they send-off and go to college. So everyone, all these guys in the locker room, they're gonna do anything they can to get the dub."

"We're locked in. We love our seniors," Simpson said. "We want them to go out on a good note, so we're gonna put it all out on the line for them. We're not gonna stop until we get 'em a ring. That's basically my main motivation. I came here for a championship and that's what I plan on getting. It's not too late."

"We're gonna come out hard for our seniors because we don't want them to go out sad," Mohammad said. "Just know that we'll be ready."

For more from sports reporter Khari Demos, follow him on Twitter @riri_demos. Also, tune in to Khari as a guest on Tony Caligiuri's 'Inside High School Sports,' 10 a.m. Saturdays on WGR550.

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