Weekly Feature

2017-07-13 / Sports

Cleve Hill football named Bee’s top team

Constant, consistent improvement has been one of the hallmarks of Cleveland Hill football coach Glen Graham’s philosophies over the years, and it has always served the Eagles well.

That was certainly the case this past fall, when the Eagles broke their four-year sectional title drought in record-setting fashion to claim their seventh sectional title in program history.

That week-to-week improvement, capped by their record-setting performance at New Era Field, not only led to a 9-2 record but to the Eagles’ selection as The Cheektowaga Bee’s Team of the Year for the 2016-17 school year as well.

“It truly was a tremendous season that was a lot of fun,” said coach Glen Graham, who was The Bee’s Coach of the Year for the 2013-14 school year. “We had a tight-knit group that enjoyed being around each other, and we enjoyed coaching them and being around them just as much. The way they carried themselves on and off the field all year was a real credit to our community.

“I think that there was a lot of humility on the team, a lot of hard work,” Graham continued. “We just had that classic group of young people who you want to work with on a daily basis. The toughest thing to accept at the end of the season was that we couldn’t get together the next Monday to keep working together.”

Right from the first day of practice, Graham and his staff had an inkling that the 2016 season could be special. Aside from the aforementioned work ethic, Graham and his staff noticed a plethora of talent on the field — “particularly at the ‘C’ level,” Graham said — that included “a backfield with a 230-pound tailback and a 240-pound fullback.”

That talent was put to the test right off the bat with Cleveland Hill’s annual season-opening clash with non-league crosstown rival Maryvale. For just the third time in the last 10 years, Cleveland Hill found itself on the wrong side of the decision, but the Eagles didn’t dwell long on the 18-15 setback.

“It was disappointing to lose to Maryvale in week one, but at the same time it motivated the guys to improve that much more,” Graham said. “Advancing week to week without going backwards was so crucial to our success this year.”


Cleveland Hill’s football team became the standard bearer for excellence on the ground at New Era Field during its 52-21 triumph over Southwestern in the Section VI Class C Championship Game. The Cheektowaga Bee’s Team of the Year for the 2016-17 school year finished the contest with 478 yards rushing en route to collecting its first sectional title since 2013. Members of the team included, from left: front row - Matt Eldridge, Dejon Wardlaw, assistant coach Chad Kuras; second row - Dar Cunningham, Chris Deim, Jeylon Parker, D’Mario Grant, Deondre Rice, Justin Brown, Aaron Wahler, Tyler Phillips; third row - coach Dennis Mason, Trevor Lewis, Zach Ransbury, Curtis Krajewski, Ryan Majerowski, Anthony Albright, Sam Arrington, Brett Kochanski, Demien Betler, Manny Al-Hemyari, Nate Palowski, Chris Urban, David Grant, Amari Wooten, Carl Jackson, Michael Gozdziak, Sean Jones, head coach Glen Graham, James Purpura, Seth Schoenthaler, Matt Lacourse, Travis Hay and assistant coach Devonte Davis. 
Photo provided by Glen Graham Cleveland Hill’s football team became the standard bearer for excellence on the ground at New Era Field during its 52-21 triumph over Southwestern in the Section VI Class C Championship Game. The Cheektowaga Bee’s Team of the Year for the 2016-17 school year finished the contest with 478 yards rushing en route to collecting its first sectional title since 2013. Members of the team included, from left: front row - Matt Eldridge, Dejon Wardlaw, assistant coach Chad Kuras; second row - Dar Cunningham, Chris Deim, Jeylon Parker, D’Mario Grant, Deondre Rice, Justin Brown, Aaron Wahler, Tyler Phillips; third row - coach Dennis Mason, Trevor Lewis, Zach Ransbury, Curtis Krajewski, Ryan Majerowski, Anthony Albright, Sam Arrington, Brett Kochanski, Demien Betler, Manny Al-Hemyari, Nate Palowski, Chris Urban, David Grant, Amari Wooten, Carl Jackson, Michael Gozdziak, Sean Jones, head coach Glen Graham, James Purpura, Seth Schoenthaler, Matt Lacourse, Travis Hay and assistant coach Devonte Davis. Photo provided by Glen Graham Cleveland Hill certainly didn’t take any steps back in its league opener with Wilson the next week: Matt Eldridge became the first Eagle in program history to record a pair of fumble returns for touchdowns in the same game to help Cleveland Hill bounce back triumphantly from its season opener, 48-0.

Though defensive touchdowns wouldn’t play the same role in Cleveland Hill’s next three games, the Eagles maintained their ability to post eye-popping scores in taking down Southwestern (44-3), Akron (42-7) and Eden/North Collins (52-6) to improve to 4-1 at the time. The win over Southwestern in week two — a victory guided by Cleveland Hill’s 427 yards and five touchdown on just 28 carries as a team — was particularly significant in that it was the Eagles’ first victory on the Trojans’ field in 29 years.

“We went down to Southwestern knowing not only that we hadn’t won there since 1987, but that they were the favorite to win their league this year too,” Graham said. “Our recent history with them is mixed at best, so winning there was an incredible confidence booster and solidified with the kids that our goals for the rest of the season should be pretty big.

“In those big wins over Southwestern and Eden/North Collins, having the success that we did on the ground helped us build an identity offensively,” Graham continued. “We were able to run the ball well because of the talent we had in the backfield, but we also had kids up front who’d do everything we needed for the team to be successful.”

Cleveland Hill’s offensive output slowed down a bit in its 8-6 non-league win over Medina in week six, but that just gave the Eagles’ defensive unit time to shine. That’s exactly what they did, limiting Medina to just 70 yards of total offense — including negative five yards on the ground — and coming up with a crucial stop on the potential game-tying two-point conversion attempt.

“Medina’s was as explosive of an offense as we’d seen in some time, and it was a great non-league matchup for us,” Graham said. “We went toe-to-toe with them, and to come out on top was a tremendous mental boost for us as a team.”

Surviving such a close scrape helped the Eagles close out the regular season in solid fashion the following week, when they locked down their third Class C North regular-season title in four years and improved to 35-12 all-time against crosstown rival JFK. Cleveland Hill finished the day with a 345-142 advantage in yards gained on the ground despite playing the game without a few starters.

“The rest of the guys did a tremendous job of holding on against a very good JFK team, which was huge without our full lineup being available,” Graham said. “We like starting and finishing the regular season with rivalry games, mainly because you don’t have to do much to get them prepared. But, this year’s group just all liked to work hard and get better every week, and that was really obvious to see on the field.”

The Eagles were seeded first among the Class C North playoff teams and wasted little time setting the tone for their playoff run by absolutely demolishing Chautauqua Lake, 62-0, in the quarterfinals. A 26-6 triumph over Gowanda/Pine Valley in the semifinals secured a rematch with Southwestern in the title game, and though it’s difficult to defeat the same team twice in any given high school football season, that’s exactly what the Eagles did in pulling out their 52-21 victory.

Cleveland Hill’s ground dominance was on display in the title game, with the Eagles setting the New Era Field record for rushing yardage — 478 yards, including 186 yards on seven different rushing touchdowns — to beat Southwestern twice in the same season for the first time in Graham’s tenure with the team, if not even longer.

“I’m honestly not sure if we’ve ever beaten them twice in the same season,” Graham said. “Some of the kids remember being in the stands and watching the game the last time we played them at the stadium, so it was important to come in and play well against a team we played well against earlier in the year. The rushing record was kind of neat too; we didn’t know anything about it until after the game was over. Our run game was such a huge part of our success all year long, so that was neat. And, it was also good to run against a guy in Jehuu Caulcrick, their coach, who was a battering ram in his playing days.”

The magic on display in the section final couldn’t quite be replicated during the Eagles’ return to New Era Field a week later to face Rochester’s Bishop Kearney, however, as Cleveland Hill saw its 32-20 lead early in the fourth quarter evaporate in what was ultimately a 40-38 loss. But, even without earning a return trip to the state semifinals, Graham said his team had nothing to be ashamed of this past fall.

“There’s no shame in how the Far West Regional played out; our guys gave everything that they had of themselves, and that’s all you can ask of them as a coach,” Graham said. “Coach [Dennis] Mason challenged the guys during the offseason to be ‘all-in, all the time’ and to do everything they could to improve themselves so that when we get together as a team, we can get better — and then keep that attitude alive as we work as a team. The guys really bought into that and I really think that was a big key to our success this year.”

email: jnadolinski@beenews.com

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