Local HS football players explore out-of-state options during pandemic

In this Oct. 5, 2019 file photo, Niagara Falls' Zion Paige takes the ball into the end zone against Frontier at Art Calandrelli Stadium in Niagara Falls. Paige nearly skipped town this summer to play football at national powerhouse Hoover High School in Alabama.

When life throws you a pandemic, you adapt and adjust.

Niagara Falls senior Zion Paige has been making that a point this year as he awaits March 2021's "fall sports season II." Paige is one of the Wolverines' top football players, positing 812 receiving yards, 12 total touchdowns and six interceptions as a first-team Section VI Class AA selection in 2019.

As one of Western New York's top players, Paige was looking for more. Even more than New York State had to offer.

When high-level programs came calling after Paige's stellar junior season, his plan was to reclassify as a junior in order to receive another year of high school eligibility as a member of the 2021-22 class. Since his father, Craig, lives in Alabama, he figured he'd look into one of the most prestigious football programs in the country.

This led him to Hoover High School, which was notably featured on MTV's Two-A-Days from 2006-07. The Buccaneers are currently 8-0 in 7A Region 3, ranking as Alabama's No. 2 team overall and No. 27 in the country, respectively, according to Max Preps.

Paige was in the Yellowhammer State prepping to get seven-on-seven action going. He wanted to show that New York football players could play ball just like the southern kids, if given the same opportunities.

That's when life went sideways back in March.

"Due to COVID, everything didn't (pan) out how it was supposed to pan out," Paige said. "So it was either lose a senior year down there or come back and possibly play my senior year (up) here. So I just decided to come back. I didn't want to risk it."

Being in a state on New York's travel advisory list — as well as being surrounded by several states on the most updated list this week — Paige thought it was best to get out of a coronavirus hot zone. Add in difficulties with transferring to Hoover, Paige made the decision to come home, where he could train and be around family and friends for his senior year.

Paige sees a lot of potential in this year's Wolverines and said the team will surprise people by "coming out with a bang." He feels that no fall football, as well as the impact it may have on college recruiting, will add some urgency this spring.

"Switching from fall to spring messed up a lot for recruiting and scholarship opportunities and stuff," Paige said. "So I feel like in the spring everybody's gonna go harder and it's gonna be more entertaining. Because everybody's gonna be playing for that scholarship, that free college."

One person who's happy to have Paige back is Niagara Falls head coach Don Bass, as he gets his top playmaker back for next season. As great of player that Paige is on the field, Bass is far more impressed with who he is as a young man.

"Off the field, he's just an amazing young man. He literally puts a lot of things in front of himself — friends and family," Bass said. "He's the kind of kid that gets to your heart really fast. You're like, 'Wow, you're too young to be carrying around these types of burdens around with you.' At this age you should be going to school, getting good grades and having fun. That's your job, that's it, nothing else matters.

"But when you see them and they're so focused on ... 'I've gotta make sure my sibling have this, and my mom's in a better position than this and my friends are this.' ... So he's the kind of kid that really tugs at my heartstrings when I get a chance to sit down and talk with him, so I'm very happy that he's still here."

Bass would have had a tough task on his hands if Paige had left, with fellow first-team Class AA defensive back Paul Rodgers heading to Nevada for the fall. Bass' message, though, has always been for his kids to take care of what's best for them before anything else.

Bass has always wanted more of a "father-son" dynamic with his players, prioritizing more life lessons than plays in the playbook. So that's why he never attempted to keep Rodgers from following his path out west.

Similarly to Rodgers, former Canisius and Starpoint safety/receiver Riley Simpson has also made a move, going 1,200 miles away to Florida. The former Crusader is trying to make a splash with Winter Park, having made his season debut in the Wildcats' 31-7 win over Lake Nona on Oct. 9.

Like Canisius and Hoover, Winter Park has been one of the country' top high school programs in recent years, compiling a 40-12 record since 2016.

This wasn't what he expected, but Simpson had to play the hand that COVID dealt.

"When they moved football to the spring, it kind of like came as a perfect storm where my mom had the opportunity to come down to Florida for business for her work," said Simpson, who helped Canisius win the 2019 New York Catholic High School Athletic Association championship. "And we made the decision as a family that I would go down with her and have the opportunity to play football down here."

The 2019 third-team All-Western New York selection has a familiar face with him in last season's Connolly Cup winner, former St. Francis quarterback Jake Ritts. Although it wasn't planned out, Simpson is glad to have a friend from home on the roster while down in the Sunshine State.

Getting adjusted to 90-degree heat has been a challenge, but one thing Simpson has gotten adjusted to is the level of competition. He said the Florida boys are definitely a "different breed," with some of his teammates touting offers from Power Five schools. Simpson said the mentality around the game is so different because programs are going year round with things like spring practices.

But being the son of a coach — Riley's father, Chris, is the co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach for the University at Buffalo — has prepared him well. He and his family have lived in Florida, New York, Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin during his dad's coaching career.

The unique thing Riley has seen with moving to Florida has been the impact on his recruitment. Having received his first Division I scholarship offer from Valparaiso in August, other schools are tuning in to see how his senior season goes. Even though some of those programs don't generally recruit in Florida, the connections he made while in New York have allowed Simpson to keep in touch with most schools.

Thankfully the Orlando area hasn't been as stricken with COVID in his time there, but Simpson has still had to get acclimated to new protocols as of late. Once again, he's adapting and adjusting.

"We have to wear a mask when our helmets aren't on. ... The team handed out masks, we have them around our necks during practice," said Simpson, who will make his second start at safety tonight against Oviedo. "We test every two weeks. ... We're actually, for school-wise, football players are in their own bubble. So all the football players go in one big classroom and do all your classes on a computer so we're not getting contact traced from somebody else throughout the school.

" ... So they take it pretty serious and it's definitely a possibility (to catch COVID), things can happen. You've just gotta stay positive and hope everybody stays healthy and that we can get our season in."

Follow sports reporter Khari Demos on Twitter @riri_demos. Also, be sure to listen to the GNN Sports Podcast, on Spotify, Anchor, Apple Podcasts and more.

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