Ithaca High School first day of practice for the football team.
DRYDEN – Dryden High has a new football coach, but he’s a stranger to neither the school nor the program.
Ralph Boettger, the school’s retired director of athletics and the Purple Lions football coach nearly 20 years ago, is back after the departure of Dan Fink. At nearly 59 years of age, he’s as eager as ever to get the season started.
“Somewhere down the line, either from my mother or my father, I was blessed with endless energy,” he said Monday morning during the first practice of the preseason. “I don’t know why, but I love football, and that’s part of it. And a big part is, I’m retired, and you ask any retired person unless they have a boat or something, they need something to charge them up, and there’s nothing better for me.”
Summer unofficially came to an end Monday for players and coaches of fall high school sports. Football teams across the county and Section 4 are pointing toward Sept. 5, the first Friday night of the season, with four of Tompkins County’s six squads scheduled to play that night. The other two open up the next afternoon, including Newfield, which will be fielding a varsity football team for the first time in three years.
Boettger, who also coached football at Ithaca High some 25 years ago and assisted Little Red first-year coach Kelly Gordon last year, was approved for the job on July 2 after Fink moved out of the state. Boettger said during the interview process for the job, he intimated that he would be willing to accept an assistant coaching job in Dryden if the board of education chose someone else.
He just wanted to be back in the game, and now he is.
“I’ve always seemed to make my way back here,” Boettger said of Dryden, “and I know why: It’s the people. It’s 10 years as AD (2002-12), there’s an attachment there that I don’t think I’ll ever lose. I think it has a lot to do with the staff, the people in administration.”
Boettger said the fact that the assistant coaches would be returning to the Purple Lions program, along with a young but talented and dedicated group of players, made the job more desirable.
“As soon as I met the kids in the weight room, it was obvious that they love football,” he said. “They’re dedicated and they just want to keep this thing rolling. And rolling means, they had a couple of years where they were 3-6, 4-5, and they want to take that next step, which is trying to compete with the Lansings and the Waverlys.”
Dryden will look to improve upon last year’s 4-5 campaign, one that ended with consecutive losses to Waverly, Thomas A. Edison and Harpursville. Boettger and Co. are looking to take a significant step forward, as evidenced by their cheer at the end of every drill: “1, 2, 3, playoffs!”
“That’s what we want to do because it’s been a while, and we feel like we have the talent to do it,” senior quarterback Noah Welgoss said. “It’s just to keep an eye on our ultimate goal, but once the season starts, it’s one game at a time.”
“Last year wasn’t the season we wanted, so kids are coming back really hungry for a win,” added Chris Simonet, a senior lineman. “And Dryden’s only made it to the playoffs a couple of times, and lost both games, so our goal this year is to make the playoffs and win a playoff game.”
At Ithaca, the goals are a little more modest from a program that has not won a game since week 3 of the 2012 season. Gordon, a 2007 Ithaca College graduate and all-conference kick returner for the Bombers, welcomed about 30 varsity and 35 JV players back and is realistic about his expectations as his team enters the year.
“I guess I could say I want to double my win total from last year, but …” he said with a smile. “A realistic goal for us is to be right around .500, and I know for some people that might seem like a huge jump, considering our record last year, and we’ve got a young team this year. But from what I’ve seen this summer, and what I’ve seen today, the guys are ready to compete.
“We’ve got a lot of talent, which is always a plus,” he said. “The inexperience is going to be our biggest challenge — how fast can these guys get up to speed with the game speed at the varsity level?”
It’s a similar situation at Newfield, where fourth-year varsity coach Dan Donahue greeted 23 players Monday. Several of them played on his modified teams the past two seasons, as the Trojans were forced to drop varsity football due to low numbers.
Donahue has three players with varsity football experience. Seniors Billy Meeker, Seth Piotti and Cody Frederick were freshmen on Newfield’s last varsity football team, in 2011.
“We’re starting from square 1,” Donahue said. “We’re even down before the X’s and O’s, right at the basics, and the kids are motivated. We’ve got kids who haven’t even played a down of football before, and we’ve got kids who’ve played on the varsity, so we’ve got a whole range of kids.
“I’d say the first day was about like I expected,” he said, “a lot of running and just learning how to practice a little bit.”
It won’t be all about wins and losses at Newfield, Donahue said.
“We’re just looking to get better every day, every practice, every game,” he said. “The kids will have that light bulb go on every so often, like, ‘Oh, I understand what you’re saying,’ and move on from there. That’s a victory for us, and if wins come along the way, even better.”
The Friday night openers (all 7 p.m.) involving Tompkins County teams include Ithaca hosting Chenango Valley, Trumansburg at Odessa-Montour, Lansing at Groton and Dryden hosting Bainbridge Guilford. On Sept. 6, Newfield hosts Watkins Glen at 1:30 p.m.