Recorder file photo Broadalbin-Perth's Darius Reyes breaks through the line as he gains some yardage during an October 2013 game against Cobleskill-Richmondville at Patriot Field.
By MICHAEL KELLY
BROADALBIN -- They are the little guy no more.
That was the message Broadalbin-Perth Patriots head coach Jim Pelneau preached to his program's players this offseason. Coming off an 8-2 season that included a trip to the Section II Class B Super Bowl, B-P returns nearly 20 seniors for a 2014 campaign that carries with it major expectations.
Senior co-captain Tyler Schmidt said the Patriots understand the difference between their upcoming season and their last campaign.
"Last year, I feel like we snuck up on everybody," said Schmidt. "Now, I feel like we're being hunted."
And, he said, that's just fine with the squad.
"Having more challenges just makes you better," said Schmidt, a running back and defensive back for the Patriots.
The challenges for B-P are both internal and external for 2014. Internally, the squad needs to replace a departed class of star players that were standouts across the lineup; externally, the Patriots take on an improved Section II Class B schedule, which also includes two made-for-primetime non-league contests.
The Patriots' non-West Division games confirm the increased expectations for the squad from outside forces. B-P opens with a home game against Cohoes, a rematch of a sectional semifinal shootout from a year ago that doubled as one of the most entertaining games of the 2013 season; then, for the Patriots' other non-league contest, the squad heads to Class C's Hoosick Falls, that classification's five-time defending Section II champion.
Pelneau said the schedule his team was given for 2014 was no accident. The Patriots are now considered a marquee program in Section II, and the high-level non-division games are an example of the program's status.
"And that's where we want to be," he said. "We want to play the best competition out there. We want to be in those big games and play the best programs in the section."
"That's important to us because it means people are paying attention to us and recognizing us for the first time in a while," said senior lineman Zach Romeyn. "We're getting what we deserve."
While that recognition is well-received, senior linebacker Biagio Bucciferro said the Patriots are not letting it change their nose-to-the-grindstone mentality. Those games against Cohoes and Hoosick Falls are nice rewards, he said, but they are only a part of the squad's schedule.
"We've circled them on our calendar," said Bucciferro. "But we've circled every game on our calendar."
Attention to detail is what turned the Patriots from a laughingstock to a Super Bowl contender in a few short years, and B-P plans to make a return to the section's biggest game with its tried-and-true formula of a diverse rushing attack and a bruising defense.
Both those areas of the Patriots' arsenal are in line for an overhaul, though, in 2014. The squad lost three major skill players from the 2013 offense -- Luigi Magliocca, Andre Taylor and Mike Visco, who combined for more than 1,700 yards of total offense and 22 touchdowns -- and the club's defense only returns three healthy starters for 2014.
The Patriots should be able to replace their losses on offense without too much trouble. Leading rusher Darius Reyes and quarterback Zach Morreale are back for senior seasons; sophomore Preston Taylor's versatility should go a long way in replacing the all-around contribution his brother, Andre, made in 2013; and, senior Joe Diaz, senior Chris Natoli and junior Connor Pingitore should represent some of the skill players ready to make a major leap forward for the Patriots.
The club has a reworked offensive line, too, after losing a few starters. Romeyn and fellow senior Rick Wallace, a co-captain, return to lead the group of Patriots that will carve out space for a rushing attack poised to be electric.
"We pride ourselves on running the ball," said Wallace. "That's what we want to do: Ground and pound, ground and pound."
The losses to the Patriots' defense will be tougher to replace. The unit returns all three starting linebackers from 2013 -- Bucciferro, Reyes and Schmidt -- but those are the only healthy returning defensive starters for the Patriots. Schmidt will move to cornerback to give that grouping of defenders some veteran experience, while senior Damion Jabot is expected to return from a collarbone injury in the middle of the season to provide a veteran jolt to the secondary.
Still, despite the questions for the Patriots, B-P enters a new-look West Division with optimism. Defending champion Schalmont -- the club responsible for both of the Patriots' losses in 2013 -- has moved to the Reinfurt Division, and B-P is a favorite along with Glens Falls and Schuylerville to win a division crown.
Still, much of that underdog mentality remains for the Patriots. The crushing loss in last year's Super Bowl and years of building up an us-against-the-world attitude have left B-P still feeling like it has a lot to prove in 2014, Bucciferro said.
"Coach has said how we're going to have the target on our back -- and, sometimes I think that," he said. "But, most of the time, I just think, 'Hey -- they're saying we're not good enough still,' and that gets me motivated."
So, too, does the idea of continuing to take the program one rung higher with each season. During each of Pelneau's first three seasons coaching the Patriots, the squad has won more games than in the last campaign -- three wins in 2011, five in 2012 and eight in 2013 -- and the next step for the program is clear: To get back to the Super Bowl and keep playing after its conclusion.
Showing they are truly one of the big guys in Section II Class B football is the goal for the Patriots, and the best way to do that is to end the section's season on top.
"We want to finish what we didn't last year," Wallace said.
Contact MICHAEL KELLY at firstname.lastname@example.org