Weekly Feature

2018-07-12 / Sports

How Lancaster built a football powerhouse

Team of the Year
Sports Reporter

Connor Mahony of Lancaster picks up the ball and runs with it after Ben Damiani blocked a Troy punt in the state championship game at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse in November. 
Photo by Jake French Connor Mahony of Lancaster picks up the ball and runs with it after Ben Damiani blocked a Troy punt in the state championship game at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse in November. Photo by Jake French It wasn’t long ago that the Lancaster football program was mired in mediocrity. The Legends came into the 2016 season sporting a 15-20 record over the previous four campaigns. They had not won a sectional title since 1999 and had never been further than the Far West Regional round.

The team walked off the field at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse in November as the Class AA state runner up and two-time defending sectional champion. Because of what happened in between, it is the 2017-18 Lancaster Bee Team of the Year.

A New Start

The program entered the 2016 season with a new head man. Eric Rupp, a 2002 alumnus and member of the 1999 sectional championship team, took over after years as an assistant on JV and varsity. He did not take the role lightly. He had played under longtime coach Len Jankiewicz, who led the program for 26 years before retiring in 2011. His father played under Joe Foyle, who coached the program for three decades and still attends practice most days despite being more than 90 years old.

“I think I was fortunate to take over a program with so much pride and tradition,” Rupp said. “Certainly, I wanted to keep many of the standards that Coach Foyle and Coach Jankiewicz set. But we wanted to add some new wrinkles to the program.”

Lancaster is a program steeped in tradition. The fathers and uncles who sit in the stands and cheer on their sons and nephews are mostly alumni, many of whom were star players. Some of the coaches also have a long history with the program, including

1989 graduate Dave Mansell. He coached with Rupp for years as an assistant. With the team coming off a season where the offense was explosive but the defense struggled, Rupp knew Mansell was the guy to turn things around.

Lancaster’s Kyle Backert reaches out for a fade pass in the Class NYSPHSAA Championship Game against Troy at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse last November, but is unable to haul it in. 
Photo by Jake French Lancaster’s Kyle Backert reaches out for a fade pass in the Class NYSPHSAA Championship Game against Troy at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse last November, but is unable to haul it in. Photo by Jake French Dominant


Over the next two years, the defense grew from competent to great to dominant. The line pressured opposing quarterbacks into bad throws; the linebackers made sure running backs had nowhere to go. Special teams was just as solid, blocking punts, kicks and extra points at an incredible rate.

“A lot of what we do comes down to our preparation,” Rupp said. “The coaching staff works very hard to break down game film, to figure out tendencies. Then the kids study and we work. We talk all the time about relentless effort. I think that is kind of the thing that I have seen the most, is giving your best every single day, even when you’re tired, and just trying to take the program to a new level.”

“We’re pretty simple in what we do. We do a few things well,” Mansell said. “We have good players, and the kids work hard. We’ve had 45 kids working out at 7 a.m. The kids are invested. The kids that end up playing with us in the fall will have worked really hard. When you work really hard at something, it’s hard to let go. Whatever 11 guys play on defense this year will be guys that play hard and care deeply about what they’re doing.

“[Special teams] is a credit to the kids. They study the film, and we show them stuff. We always pick out the weak spot and attack it. The kids take pride in that. It’s no different than what we do on offense or defense. But most people don’t do it on special teams. You notice it because it is something we prioritize.”

Hot Start

The team went into the 2016 season with confidence. The Legends were returning several top players, including running back Zach Samborski, who had broken the team’s single-season rushing record, and wide receiver LG Castillo, who would go on to break program records as well. The juniors coming up from JV had gone 8-1 the previous year. Expectations were high, internally at least.

The team opened the season with an impressive 31-14 non-league win over Williamsville South. It then set and tied the program record for points in a single game with 56-14 and 56-18 wins over Jamestown and Frontier, respectively. Lancaster moved to 4-0 with a 42-14 victory over Williamsville North after that.

It was an ideal start, but the greatest challenge awaited the Legends in week five: an away, homecoming game against perennial power Orchard Park. If the Legends wanted to win a sectional title, they’d have to get through the Quakers at some point.

Things started off well enough, as Castillo hauled in a long touchdown pass from quarterback Ryan Mansell. But Orchard Park struck back with three consecutive touchdowns to make it 21-7. Lancaster would later tie things up at 28, before Orchard Park’s Josh Dahl ran for a long touchdown with about two minutes left in the game.

Lancaster got the ball back and wasted no time, as Mansell unloaded another long touchdown pass to Castillo from 80 yards out. But the extra point was no good, leaving Lancaster trailing 35-34. Lancaster’s defense stepped up, forcing Orchard Park to punt with just over 30 seconds left. The special teams came up huge again, rushing through the line and causing the Quaker punter to move quickly to kick the ball, which hit a blocker’s backside and went directly into the air. Defensive lineman Jake Michalski found it in the air and ran it into the end zone for a touchdown.

The defense sealed the deal soon after with its third interception of the day. The Legends moved to 5-0, now sure that they could beat anyone in Western New York.

“We all were looking forward to the Orchard Park game that year,” Giordano said. “We started off hot, but then our defense kind of fizzled. Once we beat them, it boosted our confidence way more. Now knowing that we beat Orchard Park, it showed everyone that our hard work was starting to pay off.”

“I remembered going into the game you had two undefeated teams, homecoming, taking on legendary coach (Gene) Tundo in Orchard Park,” Rupp said. “We were losing the whole entire game until the last few seconds there when Jake Michalski returned that punt for a touchdown. That was the game that really gave us the confidence that we could compete with anyone in the area. It motivated us to do great things.”

Champions at Last

The Legends closed out the regular season with a 51-24 win over Hutch Tech and then a 51-14 rivalry victory over Depew. They had very little trouble to start the playoffs, dispatching Kenmore West by a 27-6 score in a rainy quarterfinal game. In the semis, they beat Hutch Tech 35-12.

Lancaster had a chance to claim the Class AA sectional crown for the first time since 1999, but the team would have to deal with Orchard Park again. This time, there would be no drama. The Legends were ahead 14-0 by halftime and ran their lead to 27-0 before the Quakers scored late. The Legends were 10-0, champions in Rupp’s first year at the helm.

The win advanced them to the Far West Regional round, where they were searching for their first-ever victory. They took on Victor, the Section V champion. Lancaster fell behind early, as Victor went up 27-7. The Legends had a big second half led by some long Castillo touchdowns, but ultimately lost 33-27.

The team was proud of what it had accomplished but was ready to look ahead to taking the next step.

“Our goal from the beginning of the [2017] season was to get back to the Far West Regional,” Rupp said. “That loss to Victor kind of redefined our program. The previous year our goal was to win the section, something we haven’t done since 1999. But after we did that, we set the bar at another level. I give a lot of credit to the kids. All off-season, that loss to Victor pushed them; it focused us. They did everything we asked them.”

The Quest for a Repeat

The program went into 2017 with a whole host of guys back from the previous year’s team. Samborski and Castillo were gone, but both sides of the ball were loaded with returning players. Ben Damiani, Brett Beetow, Mansell, Max Giordano, Andrew Hersey, Jacob Calo, Joe Andreessen, Alec Tamburri, Bryce Benham and Kyle Backert all came back to lead a new group.

They didn’t miss a beat, opening with a 49-16 victory over Bennett and following that with a 53-0 romp over Lockport. Week three saw them win their third-consecutive game over Orchard Park, jumping out to a 43-6 lead before taking out the starters in the second half.

The touchdown the Quakers scored came after their kick returner ran it back to the Lancaster 11-yard line. They took eight plays to get those 11 yards, five of which came on a penalty. It was the first touchdown that the Legends first-team defense had given up and would remain that way through the first 11 weeks of the season.

The Legends dominated everyone, shutting down opposing offenses and scoring at an incredible clip. They defeated Niagara Falls 41-8 to move to week four. The following week, they broke the program record for points again in a 61-28 victory over Niagara-Wheatfield. They returned three kickoffs for touchdowns in that game, including two in the third quarter. The team closed out the regular season with a 39-6 win over Jamestown and a 43-7 victory over Depew. Another undefeated regular season.

“I think we just had a completely different new mentality compared to last year,” Andreessen said. “The year before when we won the sectional championship, we learned what we were capable of. Now we were trying to take the program to new heights. Coach Rupp and Coach Mansell realized that, too. Our goal wasn’t just to win a sectional championship this time. It was to get to the regional game, win the regional game. After that, you can win any given game in football.”

“Every day in practice we were just working for total domination on both sides of the ball, special teams, everywhere,” Hersey said. “We were trying to outmatch our opponent by a big difference. We were kind of working toward that. So it didn’t surprise me when I saw our defense had one touchdown given up the whole regular season. Running against those guys in practice, you kind of expect it.” Another Title and Beyond

The Legends started slowly in their quarterfinal win over Hutch Tech but cruised to a 35-0 victory. The offense exploded in the semifinal, as the team tied the program record for points scored in a single game with a 61-12 win over Jamestown, the fourth time in two years the record had been broken or tied. The championship game pitted the Legends against undefeated Williamsville North. Lancaster was in control throughout. Mansell became the program’s all-time passing leader, helping the team to a 35-6 victory. After 17 years without a sectional championship, it had won two in a row.

“We knew we would be tough to score on,” Giordano said. “We did not know how powerful our offense was going to be. Coach Rupp always finds a way to be dominant on offense. Once we started to get through week five and week six, it was like ‘oh, wow’ we’re a dominant team. Once we got to the playoffs, we made it through there. Then we made it through the stadium [for the sectional final].”

The Legends were back in the Far West Regional game, this time being matched up with Aquinas at Brockport State College. They stormed down the field on the first drive, before a fumble gave the Little Irish the ball inside their own 10-yard line. The Lancaster defense held tight, forcing a punt and giving the offense great field position. Just minutes later, Giordano caught a touchdown pass from Mansell to give the Legends a 7-0 lead.

“It was unbelievable,” Giordano said. “I remember we were all in the huddle saying ‘we’re one step closer.’ That brought us together on the field. That was a big key to our success. We scored that one touchdown and knew that’s all we needed. We just needed to lead and they were not going to score. That was the whole mindset of the game.”

Giordano was correct, as the Lancaster defense held Aquinas to 57 yards total. Late in the third quarter, the Legends pinned the Irish deep in their own territory. The punt snap was high, flying out of the back of the end zone for a safety. That was all the scoring Lancaster would need to do en route to a 9-0 victory.

“I think anytime you work hard at something and you get rewarded, you’re happy for the kids,” Dave Mansell said. “That night in Brockport was a special night. It was something they wanted really bad to do. And they did it. If you get a zero, it’s all a credit to the kids. We can teach and coach, but if they don’t work, it doesn’t work.”

“It’s a testament to the kids,” Rupp said. “We talk about their toughness and their grit. That Aquinas team is extremely talented; they’re one of the top programs in the state. That was our goal, to get back to that game. The preparation that week was outstanding. The kids just dug deep. It certainly wasn’t easy, but they played for each other. We accomplished something I never had before.”

The team advanced to the state semifinal for the first time in program history, taking on Cicero-North Syracuse. The Legends fell behind 14-6 in the second quarter, before Rupp made the decision to put the ball in the hands of Andreessen. The hulking back took direct snaps, threw for a touchdown and rushed for more than 143 yards. The offense could not be stopped in the second half, rolling to a 35-21 victory. The Legends were headed to their first-ever state championship game.

“Aquinas and Syracuse, compared to the teams in our section, were super athletic,” Andreessen said. “You could just see that they were bringing a different speed. The preparation we had, we knew what plays were coming out of each formation. All that really set us up for success. It was a whole new speed caliber than we were used to. But our mentality didn’t change. We countered the speed by knowing what they were running.”

The Big One

Lancaster was one of just 10 teams from across the state that played in the state championship game at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse on the last weekend of November. Several thousand Lancaster residents traveled to the game to see the Legends take on reigning champion Troy.

“It was really humbling,” Hersey said. “It was a really exciting experience to know that you were one of 10 teams to play there this year. Knowing that all our hard work went into that last game and playing in that great stadium is what it all came down to was really humbling for everyone.”

The Legends got off to a slow start, falling behind 28-7 at one point. But they did not give up. Andreessen and Hersey both scored, bringing Lancaster to within 34-20. Later, Mansell hit Backert with a 72-yard touchdown pass to bring the Legends to within a touchdown. For a moment, it seemed the Legends might pull off a miracle comeback.

But Troy scored again to essentially put the game away at 41-26. As the clock ticked down on the Lancaster season, the players and coaches were able to reflect on an incredible two-year run.

“It was unbelievable,” Giordano said. “I got goosebumps walking out of the locker room. Seeing the whole Lancaster community in the stands cheering for you, all the little kids wearing your jersey and painting numbers on their face. It was an experience I’ll never forget, being able to represent Lancaster there. It was just unbelievable.”

“Obviously losing the state championship game hurts, but that one moment shouldn’t replace all the good that these kids did,” Rupp said. “I don’t want that to take away from anything they accomplished.”

Looking Ahead

The Lancaster program recently graduated one of the most athletically accomplished senior classes to ever pass through the school. The postseason honors were nearly endless. Andreessen, Damiani, Beetow, Hersey, Calo, Giordano, Mansell and others racked up the awards and all-star team selections. Some went on to dominate in other sports in the winter and spring, where the on-field success continued.

“It’s just an amazing group of kids,” Rupp said. “Not only are they talented athletically, but they’re strong academic kids. They’re going to be champions for life.”

But now the coaches and remaining players are looking ahead to next season. Roughly 45 players have been showing up at 7 a.m. every day for workouts. This type of off-season training will be one of the major keys to continuing the program’s run of dominance.

“We have a lot of competition,” Rupp said. “Our summer workouts have just started. This first week, I have almost 50 guys who have 100 percent attendance at 7 a.m. So they’re putting in the time. That doesn’t guarantee us success, but it gives us the opportunity. We have a lot of multi-sport athletes that have had a lot of success in wrestling, baseball and lacrosse. Our kids have been working extremely hard. It’s up to the coaching staff to put it all together.”

Another key to the program’s rise has been continuity from youth league through varsity. The varsity players help put on a summer football camp for elementary and middle school-age players. The coaches at every level work together so that terminology and systems remain the same from youth to modified to JV to varsity.

Attend any home varsity football game and you’ll see dozens of young boys wearing football jerseys. The same goes for any type of football game in Lancaster. It’s the same formula Orchard Park used to rise to dominance in the 1990s and 2000s. Now, it’s Lancaster’s time.

“It’s a lot different,” Giordano said. “When I was a sophomore, the JV and varsity teams were never really that close. Now that whole program is really close. Everyone practices, everyone goes to each other’s games. Everyone helps each other. We all go to Little League practices, too, to help them run. The little kids look up to us. It’s changing. It’s become more of a family, instead of just ‘this level or this level.’ It’s been like one big program now. Everyone gels; it’s going to help in the long run.”

The goal is for success to beget success. This past group of seniors was among the Lancaster Youth Football players who were sitting in the stands of Ralph Wilson stadium in 2009 watching Lancaster fall just short against North Tonawanda in the sectional championship. The hope is that making it to the state final in 2017 inspired a new generation of Legends.

“I think we haven’t seen much success with the program in a while,” Andreessen said. “We had a great year last year, then we make it to the Dome this year. It’s big for the new generation of kids in the youth camp now. When Lancaster made it to the Ralph in 2009 and lost to North Tonawanda, it was really cool for me to go and watch that game. I can only imagine what the kids thought watching the game at the Dome.”

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