RICKY ST. CLAIR
SARANAC LAKE — Anytime you lose 19 starters to graduation and 81.6 percent of your offensive output from a season ago, things look pretty bleak.
But Saranac Lake football coach Eric Bennett has other ideas.
High School Sports Magazine
One year removed from a 10-1 season that saw the Red Storm reach the NYSPHSAA Class C quarterfinals, Bennett hopes to compete for the Class C crown once again in Section VII.
“Every year, we hope to put our best foot forward, be as competitive as we can and hopefully put ourselves in a position at the end of the season to play for a championship,” Bennett said.
Winning football games in Saranac Lake is synonymous like the autumn foliage that surrounds the village during the fall months. Bennett, who enters his fourth year as head coach with a 29-4 record, doesn’t feel any additional pressure from the town’s high expectations.
“I think any pressure we feel is just self-induced,” Bennett said. “We want to compete, we want to be successful, and we want to put the work in to reach our goals. In terms of other people, we try not to worry about that and just try to control what we can control. That’s what we’re busy trying to do.”
Despite losing 10 starters, Bennett said the Red Storm’s offense, which scored 421 points last year, will have the same up-tempo philosophy in multiple spread sets.
“We’re not changing who we are,” Bennett said. “We like to play at a high tempo. We like to think of ourselves as a very simple team that has a lot of simple concepts in that we can hopefully execute at a fast pace.”
Saranac Lake graduated signal-caller Matt Phelan in June, who finished fifth all-time in career passing yardage in Section VII at 3,257.
In 2013, there’s a quarterback competition between siblings Trent and Tristin Fitzgerald.
Senior Trent Fitzgerald was tutored behind Phelan and tossed 23 pass attempts last fall, while Tristin Fitzgerald was called up at the end of last year.
Earlier this week, Bennett said the job could potentially go to Trent Fitzgerald.
“He will likely be our starter, but that decision has still yet to be made,” Bennett said. “It is (up in the air). I think we’re leaning toward him.
“His younger brother Tristin is a sophomore. He came up at the end of the season, and he’s really picking up the offense and doing a lot of great thing out there. I wouldn’t necessarily want to be around the dinner table with those two competing.”
What Saranac Lake does return is senior running back and middle linebacker Lance Ackerson.
Ackerson rushed for 343 yards and 11 touchdowns for an offense that generated 4,087 yards a season ago. He was also nominated one of four team captains during the preseason.
“There’s no questions Lance is going to be the heart and soul of our team, not just our offense,” Bennett said. “He’s one of the most hardest-working kids I’ve ever had the pleasure of coaching. He’s a bright kid, and he’s got his priorities straight. He’s a real physical and emotional leader for our team, and we’re looking forward to seeing what he can do.”
With two of its top rushers and receivers graduated, Bennett expects new faces to step to the forefront and contribute.
“Offensively, Derek Thurber is certainly going to be one,” Bennett said. “He’s a returning back for us. Dylan Gunther, he will make a lot of plays for us, and we’re looking forward to a couple juniors like Ty Marmion and Torin Smith to also make some big contributions.”
Last year, the Red Storm defense surrendered just 9.6 points per game and held opponents from scoring double-digit points on seven occasions.
This year, though, only Ackerson and Thurber return on the defensive side of the football.
“We expect our inside linebackers to be Thurber and Joseph Atkinson, and we expect great things out of them,” Bennett said. “Lance of course will make a lot of plays. Dylan Gunther as well as Dustin Fischer will make contributions on the defensive side of the ball.”
With Saranac moving to Class C, Bennett expects the three-team division to be ultra-competitive.
“With our only returner on offense being Lance and just two returners on defense, we know we’ve got a tough road to go,” Bennett said. “We’re going to be fighting to compete every week, but we’re staying positive, and we’re playing Saranac Lake football. We hope that we can just stay the course; we can be competitive and have a chance to compete for that championship at the end of the year.
“We know that across the league, there’s a lot of talent back and a lot of guys itching to get their shot at Saranac Lake, and we’re prepared for that.”
Saranac Lake hosts Peru at Ken Wilson Field for 1:30 p.m. today.