GROTON – Monday was one of the hottest days of the summer, but there was still an unmistakable hint of fall in the air.
High school football, soccer and cross country athletes in the area were greeted with a 90-degree furnace blast on the opening day of fall sports practice. At Groton Elementary, new Indians football coach Tom Goddard was like a kid on Christmas morning — albeit a very warm Christmas morning.
“I didn’t sleep last night,” he said with a grin. “I was up at 5. I couldn’t get here soon enough.”
Goddard, who led Clarence High to two Section 6 titles in 25 years at the Buffalo-area school before retiring four years ago, has returned to the sideline and will lead a Groton program that was rocked by scandal a year ago. A September 2014 hazing incident involving members of the football team resulted in the forfeiting of its second game last season, guilty pleas from two players charged with harassment in the incident, and the school board’s decision not to retain head coach Jeff Lewis and assistant Bobby Brull.
A day after Goddard was officially hired in May, he met with about 30 prospective football players and introduced himself. He also talked about the events of last season, something he says he doesn’t plan on doing again.
“I told them, ‘I had no involvement with last year, and to me, that page has been turned over. We’re on a new page,’” he said. “None of us can change what happened 10 seconds ago. Whether it’s bad or good, it’s done. And I don’t bring it (last year) up anymore.”
Goddard, who spent his first two years of retirement building a home on Owasco Lake, has been in close contact with his Groton players for the past three months since being hired. He said he was grateful that Athletic Director Billie Downs chose him, and was up-front with her in a phone call before he applied.
“I called her because I’m retired and I am older,” said Goddard, who coached for a total of 38 seasons before retiring after the 2010-11 school year. “And I told her that if she was looking for someone that’s going to be here for the next 10 or 15 years, it’s probably not me. But if she’s looking for someone to come in with some experience, I would definitely be interested. And she said, ‘Get an application.’”
When asked if his un-retirement caused any blowback at home, he insisted it had not. “There’s a sign I had our refrigerator for along time, which said, ‘We interrupt this marriage for football season,’” he said with a smile.
A total of 26 players showed up at Groton Elementary for the first day of practice, numbers that the coach will have to adjust to quickly. At Clarence, he said, the team had enough players so that there were 22 different starters, 11 apiece on offense and defense. He won’t have that luxury at Class D Groton, where most of the top-line players will play both ways.
That’s of little consequence to senior Matt Gombas, who’s just happy to be back on the field after a trying 2014.
“It feels great,” said Gombas, a fullback/linebacker. “I’ve been ready to get back for a long time now. I’m ready to go … We’re just trying to forget about what happened and move on and succeed.”
Nate Ossit echoed his classmate’s sentiments, and admitted to being nervous heading into his final season.
“There are a lot of butterflies, coming in as a senior,” said Ossit, whose older brother Zack, a 2014 Groton grad, was a two-way starter for the Indians and helped Groton to the Section 4 Class D title game in ’12. “I’m pretty nervous, honestly. New offense, new system, but overall the day’s been pretty solid.”
In spite of the limited number of players, Goddard plans on running a no-huddle, spread offense that relies on quick snaps of the ball and intricate play calls at the line of scrimmage. While his team has many players with limited football experience, Goddard is pressing forward.
“Our kids’ enthusiasm for football and excitement is great, but they’re learning right now,” he said. “Our system radically different from what they’ve done in the past. … I had the good fortune at Clarence to start 22 different kids, so when the offense is off, they’re on the sideline catching their breath.
“A no-huddle offense is great,” he said, “but if you’re running your own kids into the ground and they can’t catch their breath, it’s not going to work.”
Goddard is being assisted by Eric Prior, a 1990 SUNY Cortland graduate who spent 10 seasons coaching at Cortland High. He left in 2012 to be available to see his son play, but will return to the sidelines this fall.
The football program at Ithaca High has undergone some rough times of its own, but of a different nature. The Little Red, under third-year coach Kelly Gordon, enters the 2015 season on a string of 24 straight losses, the longest in the state. But Gordon said around 35 players have come out for both the varsity and the junior varsity, and the talent within gives him and his team hope that things can change this season.
“These guys have been through a lot the past couple of years, and we just tell them to keep fighting,” said Gordon, a 2007 Ithaca College graduate and former all-conference returnman for the Bombers. “At the same time, the last two years are done, this is a brand new year. Expectations have changed, they’re higher. We’re not just here to compete and put on a good show, we’re here to win some football games.”
Senior lineman Jack Cesari, who’s played football at Ithaca since eighth grade, is passionate about the program and confident that this is the year the Little Red’s fortunes begin to change.
“Being in school, you’re seeing people not really care about the football team, because why would they?” he said. “But this year, I just see a chemistry, I feel it, and I’m so excited, I really am. I think we’re going to change it with our actions. We’re not going to talk ourselves up, we’re going to come out of the gates really hard and that’s going to set the tone for the rest of the season.”