Searching for the next great rusher
Trio of local teams need to replace star running backs
A year ago, the local high school football scene was dominated by superstar running backs. Dunkirk’s Quantavis Kleckley, Fredonia’s Joell Colon and Cassadaga Valley/Falconer’s Robbie Penhollow were all among the top six rushers in Section VI in both rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, each eclipsing the 1,000 yard mark and each with double digit touchdown totals.
This year, that may not be the case.
Another thing that all three feature backs had in common was their graduation year, as all three players have moved on from their days on the high school gridiron.
So, who’s next in line?
A year ago, Kleckley led the Dunkirk Marauders with 126 carries for 1,190 yards (fifth in Section VI) and 14 touchdowns (fifth in Section VI) in a run-heavy offense. Dunkirk had its sights set on replacing Kleckley in 2019 with Tywon Wright, who was expected to return to the Marauders in 2019 after suffering a season-ending knee injury in 2018. However, things changed since the last football season and Wright is no longer at Dunkirk. Wright and tight end Conrad Thomas both transferred from Dunkirk to Southwestern to play for the Trojans this upcoming season.
In addition, Rocky Radcliffe — Dunkirk’s second leading rusher who found the endzone six times a year ago — also moved away from Dunkirk this offseason. As a result, much of the load this year offensively will fall on second-year starting quarterback Phil Messina, who showed improvement as the year went on, especially as a passer. Dunkirk’s usually run-based offense could be slightly more pass-based this year, but Marauders head coach Mike Sarratori believes his system can compensate for the loss of Kleckley and company.
“We don’t go into any season looking to replace our running back,” said Sarratori. “I really believe it’s a product of the kids we have here and the line that we have been able to put together. It’s a system built around the running back. I’m very confident that any one of our kids — whether it’s one person or by committee — we’re not going to have a problem filling that position.”
The Fredonia Hillbillies will have to replace Colon after a season of 143 carries for 1,263 yards (third in Section VI) and 15 touchdowns (tied for third in Section VI) in 2018. To do so, Fredonia will return a pair of running backs in 2019 with experience in Dom Gullo and Dalton Gardner. Gullo tallied 182 yards and a pair of touchdowns a year ago, while Gardner was relied upon when Colon dealt with a lower body injury last season.
Both Gullo and Gardner will certainly be used more this season, similarly to the position Fredonia was in a year ago when Colon was tasked with replacing Brendan Plaister. The Hillbillies will be thrilled if Gullo and Gardner can replicate the success Colon had in filling Plaister’s shoes in 2018. Fredonia will also need to replace starting quarterback Trey Swartz this season, but leading receiver Jake Skinner returns for his senior season with the attention of recruiters across the country.
In addition to Dunkirk and Fredonia, the Cassadaga Valley/Falconer Golden Cougars have the tall task of replacing the team’s two most dynamic players on offense from a year ago in this upcoming season.
Not only did Penhollow depart after a 2018 year of 167 carries for 1,094 yards (sixth in Section VI) and 15 touchdowns (tied for third in Section VI), starting quarterback Connor Crabtree also graduated in 2018.
Replacing Penhollow and Crabtree will certainly not be easy, as Penhollow also led the team with 446 receiving yards and four receiving touchdowns, while Crabtree was second on the team with 512 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns. Penhollow was also a force on defense with 111 tackles in 2018, more than twice as many as any other player on the team a year ago. As no player other than Crabtree attempted a pass in 2018 and no other rusher outside of Penhollow and Crabtree eclipsed 100 rushing yards in the 2018 season, Cassadaga Valley/Falconer will be a team with plenty of opportunity for new names to make their mark on the Golden Cougars’ stat sheets.
As we saw a year ago with Colon replacing Plaister in Fredonia and Kleckley shouldering more of the load after Wright’s injury in Dunkirk, the teams in question have been able to figure things out in the past when it comes to finding a feature back. Now in 2019, the “next man up” mentality will be put to the test yet again.