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John Day column: 6 high school football programs loving this season

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Even the most ardent of local high school football supporters were amazed and excited with last weekend’s sweep of Section 3 football quarterfinals.

Having followed and covered Frontier League football and now Section 3 football for 40 years, a 6-0 sweep, as far as the records I’ve been able to uncover, is unprecedented.

Since Section 3 began playoffs in 1979, we’ve had our fair share of sectional champions from the North Country — 14 to be exact. But to have all of the local qualifiers advance on the first weekend. Well, that’s pretty special.

Highlighting last week’s action was the strong showing from Class C North. The top three from that conference moved on, with unbeaten Immaculate Heart Central routing defending champion Skaneateles, four-time sectional champion General Brown holding off Frankfort-Schuyler, and Thousand Islands pulling off the surprise of the weekend, knocking off unbeaten and No. 2 seed Sherburne-Earlville on the road.

The Frontier League is now assured of one of its teams playing for the Class C title Sunday, Nov. 10 in the Carrier Dome.

In Class A, top-seeded Indian River and No. 3 Carthage easily advanced. Both the Warriors and Comets have much stiffer challenges tonight against Jamesville-DeWitt and East Syracuse-Minoa, respectively. But it wouldn’t be a total surprise to seem them squaring off again in the Dome.

And then there is the Sandy Creek Comets. The defending Class D champions dug themselves a 14-0 hole at West Canada Valley only to roar back and put the final 34 points on the board. A semifinal meeting with Dolgeville tonight is all that stands in Sandy Creek’s way of another championship trip to the Dome.

I was thinking earlier this week about some of the reasons for such success. The bottom line is these six teams play hard, execute well and don’t beat themselves. There is an abundance of talent, to be sure, but team chemistry and knowing their roles is almost as important.

However, you need look no further than at the top for one of the significant reasons why these six teams are achieving at a high level. Strong leadership, in the form of veteran head coaches, is the one key ingredient that all of the teams possess.

From General Brown’s Steve Fisher, the dean of area coaches with some 46 years under his belt, to Indian River’s Cory Marsell, IHC’s Paul Alteri and Thousand Islands’ Joe Gilfus, all in their eighth seasons, this group of outstanding coaches are not only leaders, but mentors, teachers and often-times, surrogate fathers for many of their players.

Along with Sandy Creek’s Mike Stevens, in his 15th season, and Carthage’s Sam Millich, in his 14th year, they establish the parameters by which their programs run, they set the tone for how their teams play, and they have the knowledge and experience to make the right decisions at the right times.

These teams are extensions of their coaches. All are former players, including four at their alma maters (Alteri, Millich, Marsell, Stevens), and one (Fisher) who has been around long enough to have coached against them in their playing days.

Each has a unique coaching style. But the one trait they have in common is that when they talk, players listen. When you step on the field, it’s all business. But there is also always room to have fun because that’s what high school sports is all about.

Fisher, the ultimate old-school boss, has said he’s having more fun coaching this group of Lions than probably any in his long tenure.

Marsell was a tough, hard-nosed linebacker in his playing days at Indian River. His Warrior teams play like their coach did, with reckless abandon and great spirit. And to say Marsell’s system has worked is a huge understatement. Each year, like this season, he seems to plug new players into his modified Wing-T offense and they do nothing but continue to win.

Millich was a prolific quarterback at Carthage under Terry Coffman in the late 1970s. Like his predecessor, Millich is a player’s coach, living and breathing success and failure. Always encouraging his charges, but not afraid to chew somebody out if he’s not performing up to standards.

In Alteri, IHC has the perfect man to guide the Cavaliers. A tremendous three-sport athlete in high school, Alteri already has a full-time job as a criminal justice professor at Jefferson Community College, and an almost full-time job as the manager of the Watertown Rams collegiate baseball team in the summer.

But Alteri loves IHC and its athletes, including his own two sons. He’s perhaps the most laid-back of the group, but an intense competitor when need be.

Stevens was an undersized, record-setting running back at Sandy Creek that always played bigger and tougher than his stature. His teams reflect that nature, the underdog who can achieve greatness with hard work and determination.

And then there is Gilfus. It’s not as if he has a lot of time on his hands after spending all day as the district’s high school principal. But like the others, he loves the kids, loves the game and the teaching aspect of the job. He said several years ago that this coaching gig was only temporary. But he’s still at it and has a young Vikings’ program solidly back on track.

Hard-working staffs, supportive administrations and parents that truly care are also the backbone of these successful programs. But it’s the coaches that set the tone, and guide these young athletes through some of the most difficult years of their lives.

Don’t be surprised if a maximum of five schools end up in the Carrier Dome next weekend.

Sportswriter John Day covers high school football for the Times. He can be reached at jday@wdt.net

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