FONDA — The 2021 football season at Fonda-Fultonville was marked by one twist or turn after another.
In the first six weeks of the season, a variety of issues caused the Braves to play two unscheduled opponents on late notice, forfeit a game due to COVID-19 quarantines leaving the team without enough eligible players, come off that quarantine to play two games just four days apart and have a game rescheduled when there were no officials available.
The ability to survive that, get into the Section II Class C playoffs as a No. 4 seed and still reach the area championship game after all that chaos has new head coach Mike Mancini confident that his team can once again thrive under what will hopefully be more normal circumstances in 2022.
“Hopefully, the season’s not as strange and chaotic as last season,” said Mancini, who is taking over as head coach after Sean Thompson stepped away from the role following three seasons in the job. “But, they’re used to it. They lived through it last year.”
Fonda-Fultonville finished last season at 7-4, routing Watervliet in the Section II Class C quarterfinals before avenging a tight regular-season loss to Hoosick Falls/Tamarac in the semifinals.
That earned the Braves their first Class C Super Bowl appearance since 2014, where they ultimately came up just short in a 26-16 loss to Schuylerville.
However, with an experienced group set to return for a team that opens its season Friday on the road against Section III opponent Central Valley Academy, Mancini is confident that the Braves can continue the upward trajectory they were on at the end of last season.
“We’ve got a good core group coming back,” Mancini said. “A lot of guys have played a lot of football the last two seasons. And, you know, we’re really excited about what we have coming back and where we’re going.”
That experienced group starts with a pair of dynamic defenders in seniors Jonathan Cranker and Owen Hicks. The hard-hitting duo are both star wrestlers — last winter, Hicks became Fonda-Fultonville’s first Section II wrestling champion since 1977 — and spearheaded a defense that allowed just 104 points a season ago.
Now, both will be expected to take on larger offensive roles, especially given the graduation of veteran skill players like Giovanni DiCaprio and Garrett Neff.
“We’re going to ask a lot more of them on the offensive side of the ball,” Mancini said.
Up front, while stalwarts Derek Duval and Tyler Schmidtmann are gone, the Braves return a trio of starters in Matt Clifford, Aiden Frederick and Logan Miller.
The biggest key to success, however, will be the continued development of quarterback Jackson Cusack.
Cusack’s insertion into the starting lineup in place of Connor Weaver at quarterback last year at midseason was one of the biggest turning points for Fonda-Fultonville’s season. Cusack’s playmaking ability as a runner was his biggest asset last year. This season, he’s got the benefit of a full offseason of quarterback work, rather than the abrupt switch from wide receiver a season ago.
Though Cusack played quarterback at the youth levels and as a freshman on Fonda-Fultonville’s junior varsity team, he switched to receiver as a sophomore and Mancini said, “didn’t really do any quarterback work until we said, ‘Hey, we’re moving you to quarterback,’ midway through last season.”
Through the offseason, Mancini’s been thrilled with Cusack’s progression.
“He’s really upped his game,” Mancini said. “We hope to be a lot more balanced in our run-pass ratio than we were the latter half of last year with him at quarterback.”