ILION, NY – They may have only been in helmets and shoulder pads on Wednesday, but Central Valley head coach Jon Cole was already running his Thunder players ragged in the early morning sun. As with most years since Ilion and Mohawk merged to make Central Valley, the Thunder will have one of the smaller rosters in the Class B East, which makes conditioning all the more important.
“If we don’t have the bodies in the platoon,” Cole said, “we won’t have them on the field. We have to stay in shape this year.”
That’s especially evident on both sides of the line of scrimmage, as the offensive line will have to protect the quarterback much more than in recent years. Cole has departed his double-wing offense to more of a pass-heavy spread offense. For a roster that only brags 12 linemen, at least three of which were not in uniform on Wednesday, protecting the quarterback will be a big factor in the Thunder’s success in the 2018 campaign.
Speaking of the change in formation, an integral part of that has come from new assistant coach Bob McCann. The former Ilion head coach and AD also spent time under Utica College head coach Blaise Faggiano, and as an assistant at St. Lawrence. With all that experience, according to Cole, McCann has been instrumental in bringing a change to the Thunder’s playbook.
“He’s been huge,” Cole said. “He took an idea that we read in a book and put it on the field with the knowledge he had. Without him, we wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are.”
Unfortunately, the Thunder’s receiving corps still need improvement, as with any new changes, they do need time to become habit. Fortunately, the receivers will have some experience directing them under center with returning senior quarterback Riley Brewer and junior tight end Braden Hoffman. Add on yet another member of the Klosner legacy in sophomore Anderson and speedy running back Brandon Gokey, and the Thunder look to be in pretty good shape offensively.
“I believe we have the ability,” Cole said, “We just need the constant touches. That’s why we’ve had the skill players come up early every day [during training camp].”
Defensively, the Thunder look to those people to make a difference, including Riley’s cousin, senior Kyle, to be the keystone of the Central Valley defense at linebacker. Meanwhile, the Thunder will look to 5-10, 270-pound sophomore Connor Bennett and 5-9, 285-pound sophomore Dillian Ouderick to leave no holes for running backs to run through this season. “We have some big guys on the line this season,” Cole said. “We’re just looking for them to plug up the holes. I’d say we have five of our guys set, we just need to find the other six.”
The thin roster does force the Thunder to be a little more meticulous with their conditioning, and they started that conditioning as soon as they were allowed to, with a summer trip to both Utica College’s and New Hartford’s football camps. Over 30 Thunder players from both the varsity and junior varsity ranks made the trips to the camps, and it’s resulted in a marked improvement on the field in both performance and mentality and it’s a mentality Cole has noticed since day one of training camp.
“It’s amazing how much mentality goes into high school football…the mentally tough will learn how to play.” Cole said. “We’ve seen a lot of commitment [in the offseason] that’s allowed us to make these changes. When you have 20 to 25 kids buying into it, it makes it a whole lot easier. You could tell who went to camp and who didn’t. To put in this new system we have to learn a whole new terminology. We were running five plays, and now we have six different formations we can use. That camp helped us put plays in we didn’t expect to put in until after the scrimmage.”
Another thing that should help the Thunder this year is the makeover their entire athletic complex has received. Over the summer, the Diss Athletic Complex underwent massive construction that included the building of a brand new turf field, which the Thunder will christen on September 7th against perennial Class B powerhouse Cazenovia. “It’s going to add a new level of excitement, and this team will have the honor of being the first team to play football on it,” Cole said. “It’s an honnor to play on it, but you have to earn that honor. It’s certainly something to motivate the kids. Being on the turf, the speed will be so beneficial to us.”
Speaking of their schedule, the Thunder have a tough row to hoe from Week One, and it all begins in earnest on a turf that’s not their own. Central Valley will be one of the teams representing the Mohawk Valley in the Gridiron Classic to start off the season, playing Class B runner-up Vernon-Verona Sherrill in that game on August 30. Joining them there will also be divisional rivals New Hartford and Oneida. (The Thunder will play the two teams in back-to-back weeks, hosting the Indians on September 28th and traveling to the Spartans on October 5th.) Unfortunately, it doesn’t get any easier for Central Valley, hosting the aforementioned Lakers after their trip to Syracuse and traveling back to the Syracuse area the next week to face Chittenango.
“We’ll know the first two weeks where we stand in the league,” Cole said. “If we win at least one, we can compete. If we win two, we’re in the driver’s seat. It’s not a great schedule, but we’ve got VVS at the Carrier Dome, and host Cazenovia on your brand-new field. If you can’t get up for that, what can you get up for?”
Hopefully for the Thunder, their play can help their fans get up on their feet and cheer them all the way to the Carrier Dome at the beginning and the end of the season.
Central Valley Thunder At A Glance
Head Coach: Jon Cole.
Assistant Coaches: Todd Hoffman, Robert Busch, Bob McCann.
Returning Starters: Riley Brewer (Sr. QB/LB), Lucas Hartman (Sr. RB/DB), Hayden Shaver (Sr. RB/DB), Brandon Gokey (Jr. RB/LB), Kyle Brewer (Sr OL/LB), and Braden Hoffman (Sr. TE/DE).
Newcomers To Watch: Mike Dihrberg (Jr. WR/DB), Kqworo Hartwell (Sr. RB/DL), David Barhydt (Jr. OL/DL), Xavier Williams (Sr. TE/DE), and Brennan Murray (Jr. WR/DE).
2017 at a glance: There’s nowhere to go but up for Central Valley in 2018, as they finished the 2017 season at a dismal 1-7. They started out with two close losses to Class B newcomers New Hartford and Notre Dame. Unfortunately, it did not get any better for the Thunder from there, as they were outscored by a combined 108-14 in their final three games to finish the regular season at 0-7. Their one bright spot in 2017 came in their first cross-over game, where they beat Lowville 30-18. However, their season would end with a thud, losing to Mexico 54-34 in their second cross-over game.
Sectional Titles: None as Central Valley, but three as the Ilion Golden Bombers, in 1985, 1990 and 1996. The Thunder will look to get their first as a combined school (Ilion and Mohawk) in 2018.
August 31 vs. Vernon-Verona-Sherrill @ Carrier Dome, 2 PM
September 7 vs. Cazenovia, 7 PM
September 14 @ Chittenango, 6:30 PM
September 21 vs. Mexico, 7 PM
September 28 vs. Oneida, 7 PM
October 5 @ New Hartford, 7 PM
October 12 vs. Camden, 7 PM
October 19: Playoff/Cross-Over