SILVER CREEK - Maple Grove coach Curt Fischer is under no illusions that his team will be welcomed with open arms - or welcomed at all, really - by fans when his Red Dragons head to Silver Creek for their Class D season-opening battle at 7 p.m., Saturday.
"I think Silver Creek has a lot of ill will towards Maple Grove," Fischer said. "I was never really involved with it, and only just found out about it a few years ago, but they seem to have a lot of ill will."
None of that should be much of a surprise, of course, especially considering the fact that each squad has taken a turn as the top team in Class D - one of the most competitive football leagues in all of New York - over the past two seasons.
Maple Grove’s Oliver Simpson averaged more than nine yards per carry last year.
by Scott Kindberg
Together, the Red Dragons and the Black Knights have won two of the past three Class D and Section 6 titles.
"I think our kids recognize that Maple Grove, and Randolph, have some of the best athletic programs. Period," Silver Creek head coach Sean Helmer said. "And (for that) they get geeked up to play them, especially Maple Grove because they're the defending champions."
After Maple Grove's dominance in 2008 gave way to Randolph in 2009 - both teams won a state title - it was in 2010 that Silver Creek, for the first time since 2005, rose to prominence. During that campaign, the Black Knights rolled to a 10-0 record against Section 6 opponents (they handed Maple Grove a 33-7 defeat in the season opener) on the way to a Class D and Section 6 title and an appearance in the Far West Regional.
That loss to Silver Creek has been the Red Dragons' only regular-season defeat over the past two years, and they enter the 2012 campaign in the midst of an 11-game winning streak.
Following that success, expectations were high for Silver Creek at the start of the 2011 season. Unfortunately for the Black Knight faithful, however, Maple Grove had other plans.
Led by a strong defense, Connolly Cup finalist and quarterback Alex Grace, star wideout Skyler Liddell and, among others, a pair of standout running backs in John Nickerson and Oliver Simpson, the Red Dragons outscored opponents 244-46, rolled to a perfect 5-0 Class D record, captured a league and sectional title and made a Far West Regional appearance.
Silver Creek, meanwhile, went 4-4 overall and 3-2 in league for a fourth-place finish, and in the two team's lone meeting surrendered 225 yards on 38 carries and five rushing touchdowns in 34-14 defeat.
It's a new season, though, and Fischer is expecting Silver Creek to return to form, thus adding a new chapter to this ever-growing rivalry.
"I think they're supposed to be the front-runner, them and Randolph," he said. "Silver Creek is the favorite to win the league, and when we saw them in their scrimmage, even without their two best players, they played like it.
"We're going to have to execute better than ever if we want to win."
Key to that execution will be new quarterback Aaron Germain, and running back Simpson, a senior who burst onto the scene last year by leading the team in carries (97), rushing yards (882) and yards-per-carry (9.1) while ranking second amongst Maple Grove runners with seven touchdowns.
This is Germain's first-varsity start at quarterback, and despite the hostile setting, Fischer expects to use his quarterback early and often to open things up.
"We'll be throwing him right into the fire, but I think he'll be fine and he's ready," he said. "We've got to throw the ball because they're good against the run. So our game plan will be to throw the ball a little bit (in order to) set up the run."
Helmer, for his part, isn't so sure.
"I think they're a running team," he said. "That's what I think. Even if they throw the ball a little we'll be treating them like a run team, with our goal being to stop Simpson first."
Helmer too will have a new quarterback under center - Nick Iskra. But while Fischer plans to air it out, Helmer will instead lean heavily on returning first-team Class D all-state running back Zed Williams, who rushed for 864 yards on 132 carries, caught 18 passes for 222 yards and scored a grand total of 12 touchdowns.
"Obviously Zeddie is one of the best athletes in the county," Helmer said. "We want to rely on him, but I think we have a good overall team as well. Guys are starting to come into their own."
One of those players that Helmer hopes really comes into his own on Saturday is Iskra, who, like Germain, will be making his first varsity start at quarterback.
With so much on the line so early, it's shaping up to be a first-rate Class D football battle.
"We're pretty inspired right now and the team feels good," Fischer said.
Added Helmer, "We're ready."