The situation was far from ideal. Last season, New Rochelle had fought all the way to the state championship game, thanks in no small part to the outstanding play of senior quarterback Lewis Edney. Then, suddenly, Edney was gone, helped to the sideline in the first quarter of the title game with what turned out to be a dislocated ankle.
Enter junior Khaliq Butts, the little-used back-up forced into the biggest game of the season. Butts performed admirably, leading a drive that tied the game in the second half before New Rochelle fell to North Tonawanda, 14-7.
Butts is now the starting quarterback, a player benefitting from his baptism by fire. "(That experience is) certainly going to help Khaliq Butts," head coach Lou DiRienzo said during the final week of practice before his team's 14-7 season-opening victory over North Rockland. "He went from being a back-up to a starter in one game because he handled himself well, he handled the offense well, and he gained confidence through that."
Butts is not the only returning player from last year's team that went 11-1. He is joined by his fellow captains Jordan Lucas, Chris Cargill, and Chris Schwarz— all seniors. New Rochelle did graduate, along with Edney, stars like Xavier Walker and Jonny McGhee. But the experience of playing in a state title game should help the Huguenots overcome those losses.
On the offensive side, DiRienzo specifically mentioned the wonderfully-named running back Capri Corn and split end Shaquille Evans as players who should keep the team playing at a high level. On defense he pointed to defensive end Joey Lopopolo, linebacker Stanley Desir, and nose guard Malcolm Allen. All of these leaders are seniors except Evans, who is a junior.
DiRienzo called the offensive line "a work in progress," but said he was pleasantly surprised by the play of senior center Khalil Jones. He tabbed the experienced secondary as perhaps the team's strongest unit.
The Huguenots were certainly tested in their opener, facing a rival North Rockland squad whose only loss last season was a 38-0 thumping at the hands of New Rochelle in the sectional finals. The Raiders have not beaten New Ro since 2005, but that doesn't mean DiRienzo has lost respect for the program.
"To be honest, the majority of the teams you play, there really isn't a home field advantage," DiRienzo said. "North Rockland is one of those places with a home field advantage." However, he welcomes the challenge. "A lot of the colleges open up with a powder puff in Week One, and I don't like that. I believe you play down to the competition or up to the competition, so I like finding out (about the quality of my team) right out the gate."
DiRienzo mentioned 2003 and 2008 as years when New Ro lost its opener, only to learn valuable lessons that propelled them to highly successful seasons (in '08 they won 10 straight; in '03 they won a state title).
DiRienzo and the rest of the New Rochelle coaching staff hasn't had to deal with much losing lately. The Huguenots have lost a total of five games the past four seasons. They won seven sectional titles last decade. DiRienzo built up the program in the '90's and took it to unprecedented heights the following decade. So how does he maintain that level of success?
"I think the first ingredient to that is having good players. I think a coach can screw up a good team more than a coach can take below average players and make the team good," said DiRienzo before getting into other potential factors.
"I like to think our consistency during this decade is the fact that it's a program. It's not a new team every year. The traditions carry over—whether it's the goofy stuff they do in the locker room, or the way we practice, or our weight training program, or our summer fitness program, or our spring plyometrics program, " he said, "It's pretty much on autopilot. If you're going to play football at New Rochelle, you know what is expected of you. It's not even like I have to police it or build it—the majority of the kids understand that."
After beating Mount Vernon 35-8 last Friday to get off to a 2-0 start, there's no reason to expect 2010 will be any different.