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Schools of Thought: Backfield in traction

October 13, 2008
By BILL CAIN, The Leader-Herald

Football is supposed to be one of the most team-oriented sports.

In so many other sports, a game is easier for a single player to dominate. In football, even the stars who rack up yards and touchdowns would shine less without good play on the offensive line and precise execution by teammates at other skill positions. A defensive all-star is going to make far fewer great plays without teammates at the other defensive positions taking options away from the opposing offense.

As true as all that may be, if you take a handful of good players away, especially from a team with an already short roster, it's suddenly hard to beat St. Mary's Institute for the Blind. If the Sisters of the Poor have been playing together for a couple years, they might have a shot at beating a team stricken with the injury bug.

"Normally, you might get one kid injured for the season, but we're already looking at four," Johnstown coach Bob Kraemer said. "You know you'll have injuries in football, but not to this extent."

The Sir Bills started the season with 28 players on the roster. Over the course of the first five weeks, 12 were injured, four are done for the year and two are unlikely to ever play football again.

Running the flex-bone offense, Johnstown starts a fullback and two halfbacks around its quarterback. After five weeks, the three original starting ball carriers had missed time.

In the preseason workouts, fullback Craig Cook strained his neck and lineman Mitch Rogers was having back trouble. That was the calm before the storm.

Week 1: Starting halfback Corey Palmateer, who Kraemer said was "probably the fastest kid on the field in the preseason," breaks his fibula and is done for the season. On the same play, starting halfback Jake Arrunategui has his bell rung, leaves the game, but later returns. Lineman Reggie Brooker injures his leg with what Kraemer said was a deep bruise. Johnstown loses 32-6 to Cohoes.

Week 2: Rogers injures his elbow. Sam Crester suffers a concussion. Johnstown beats Taconic Hills 27-16.

Week 3: Arrunategui goes down with a sprained ankle. Cook leaves with a high ankle sprain. For the next two weeks, he is replaced by offensive lineman Damian Beman. Justin Newnham pulls a quad muscle. Senior captain J.P. Muller is lost for the season with a neck injury, later diagnosed as three bulging disks that will keep him from playing contact sports such as football and lacrosse. With the proper physical therapy, he said his doctors have told him wrestling is a possibility. Lineman Ben Fernandez is blind-sided and sits out the rest of the game. Tests the following week reveal an unrelated condition, that he was born with just one kidney, which will prevent him from playing contact sports. Johnstown loses 18-15 to Corinth.

Week 4: Lineman Derek Hayner hyperextends his elbow. Johnstown loses 39-0 to Schalmont.

Week 5: Linebacker J.J. Murray tears his anterior cruciate ligament in practice and is done for the season. Brooker leaves the game with a concussion. Johnstown loses 27-13 to Broadalbin-Perth.

Somehow through it all, quarterback Adam Biron has remained healthy.

Knock on some wood, Adam.

Kraemer said there were other injuries, but he has understandably lost track of a couple of them.

It's always tough to watch a kid go down with an injury, but the frustration is compounded when this season's expectations for the Sir Bills are taken into account.

The Johnstown football program has not had its best years, recently. Kraemer said this year was supposed to start the turnaround.

"It's tough," he said. "You're never going to throw it in, though. It's frustrating because we're trying to turn the program around and we had high hopes this year. We're so close to turning it around."

The Johnstown coaches had built the 2008 game plan around many of those injured players. Without them, even with competent backups, the game becomes far more difficult.

After the Week 3 losses, it became apparent this was not Johnstown's year.

"It gets to the point where you're almost waiting for something to happen," Kraemer said.

Saturday, it did.

With all their players back except those four that are done for the season, the Sir Bills kept their playoff hopes alive with a 35-20 win over Cobleskill-Richmondville. Cook had 98 yards on 12 carries.

Although he didn't score, he was the most consistent weapon the Sir Bills had. Credit, too, the return of Hayner on the line as both Cook and Arrunategui had excellent blocking in front of them.

Muller, still a captain, watched the game intently and shared his observations with coaches when he felt the need. He even helped orchestrate the post-game dousing of Kraemer and assistant coach Jon Swartwout, a far more fun way to empty the water coolers.

Also, no Sir Bill was carted off the field.

Even if the Sir Bills don't get their turnaround season, Saturday's win could serve as a turnaround game. With all the injuries, the players could hardly be faulted if they were to just accept the unlucky hand they had been dealt and start looking forward to winter sports.

To their credit, and the credit of their coaches, they stayed with it and still have a shot of making the playoffs. That would be something to build on and could provide the foothold for the turnaround they were hoping for before the season.

Bill Cain is a sportswriter for The Leader-Herald. We invite your feedback on this or any other sports-related topic. E-mail your opinions or ideas to us at



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