Tonawanda News — The first day the Tonawanda Warriors stepped foot onto the turf at the new Clinton Small Stadium adjacent to the high school last week, coach Rob Gross didn’t have anything planned for practice. He just wanted his players to get out on the field and soak it all in.
“It’s starting to become reality for all of us as we get on this field and think about actually playing here,” he said. “It would be too cliche and too much of an understatement to say that it’s special.
“This team will experience something that no one else will get to. There is going to be generations of football teams that play on this field but only one team that will be the first one. They’re very proud of that and they feel a responsibility because of that.”
The stadium is new and improved, but the team motto is the same as it’s been since Gross took over four years ago: protect the tradition.
Tonawanda plays its opening game in its inaugural season as a member of the Class C North division today against the JFK Bears, the division’s defending regular season champion.
The Warriors graduated 16 seniors off last season’s 2-7 squad, including eight starters. QB Clayton Hess, the 2012 News football Player of the Year, will be missed on both sides of the ball, but Gross has been grooming his replacement since last season.
Junior Tristan Boling takes over the reins of the Tonawanda offense. He played at wide receiver last year and tied a school record with 34 receptions.
Gross said that in his individual workouts, Boling has spent more time at QB than receiver since the start of camp in 2012. He’s took reps at QB last season and Gross feels he’s ready to lead the Warriors.
“He is ready to go, extremely athletic, makes good decisions and is a very good leader,” Gross said. “He’s excited to be the new leader of the offense and the guys are stepping up and rallying with him.”
Gross said Boling leads by example.
“He leads with his performance. Guys know he’s a playmaker and that he’ll help his team win,” Gross said. “When he does say something it’s usually thought out and has meaning. He doesn’t have to always scream at guys in the huddle, he just has to say a few words and they respond.”
Brandon Frye will take over in the No. 1 receiver spot as a junior. Also lining up at receiver will be a group of seniors in Shane Guenot, Corbin Snyder, Paul Palladino and Jordan Cifarelli.
Senior tight end Connor Pumm was a force for the Warriors in the passing game last year. Gross plans to utilize his size, pass-catching ability and blocking skills in all areas of the game this season.
“Connor is a third-year starter on varsity. We’re going to ask him to put his hand on the ground as a tight end and play some receiver too,” Gross said. “He’s the type of athlete where he’s versatile enough to do both and that’s a huge advantage for us.”
Jake Logan will also see time at tight end.
Senior Tim Barnard got a number of carries last year and he steps into the featured back role this season. Also fighting for carries are juniors Austin Henderson and Tyler Smith, as well as senior Cory Adams.
The Warriors lost the entirety of their interior offensive line from last season — Steven Warthling, Nick Pullo and Jeff Noworyta. Senior left tackle Will Galley is back, and at 6-foot-6, 280 pounds he should be a force for THS.
“We brought him up as a sophomore and we said ‘Learn it. Do it,’” Gross said. “He’s done a great job being a leader for the offense and the defense. He’s advanced to the point where his opening game will be his 19th varsity game. His feet have gotten better — his hand placement, technique and strength, he’s put it all together.”
Galley is ready to step into more of a leadership role this season for the Warriors.
“I think I was pretty prepared to step into that role,” Galley said. “We had great leaders last year and I looked up to them and I’m trying to follow in their ways. ... We continue the tradition of school spirit and try to get to the playoffs and go even further.”
Joining Galley on the line will be returning starter Larenz Jefferson, Brandon Geercken, Jared Wynkoop, Luke Bergman, Cody Hartmen, Sam Armenia and Clint Hylton.
On the defensive side, Boling and Frye and senior Chris Mara will make up the THS secondary. Barnard, Palladino, Guenot, Zach Robinson, Adams, Dylan Mayer and Armenia will share time at linebacker.
Pumm leads the defensive line, along with Wynkoop, Galley and Jefferson.
Gross has no illusions about the level of play in Class C, in fact he’s prepared his team for another gauntlet-type schedule. He said Tonawanda is used to playing tough opponents.
“We’re in a physical division,” Gross said. “I think we’re ready because we don’t know any other way. We open up with the division champs and they’re a real good team.”
So the wait in finally over and the new Clint Small stadium will host the first football game in Tonawanda next week. Gross had a hard time putting into words what it all meant, but he said the whole Tonawanda program is grateful to the community for making it happen.
“These players and this school can say, ‘Look what we have. We have the best facility in Western New York.’ We’ve always had the pride because of our tradition, but now a kid who is 6 or 7 years old can come up and look at this stadium and see that it’s amazing,” Gross said. “I don’t know if that will ever get old. That’s something I have difficulty describing properly. This stadium — everyone on the outside can now see — it represents the way we’ve always felt about this program.”
Find the sports desk @tonanewssports and the sports editor @MattParrino on Twitter for complete high school sports coverage.