New spirit at notre dame

Sept 1-7. 2005
VOL 124 NO. 29
New spirit at notre dame
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Jugglers optimistic about return to halcyon days

It’s been a long time since the heady days of the 1980’s.

During that era, Notre Dame High School in Utica was a juggernaut of scholastic football in the Mohawk Valley area. In 1982, the Jugglers finished the season ranked ninth in New York State and in 1983 they claimed the state’s Class B title.

With that team’s tailback having returned to the program in 2003 as an assistant coach, Notre Dame fans are once again dreaming of state titles.

After graduating from Notre Dame High School, Byron Abraham went to the University of Notre Dame and then transferred to Syracuse University.

Upon graduation, Abraham found a place in the insurance business. But in 2002, when legendary former coach Ben Rizzo resumed a position on the Notre Dame staff, he lured the former star tailback to the sidelines at his alma mater. With just one year as an assistant and one as a head coach, Abraham is very optimistic in regards to the future of his Notre Dame program.

Last season, the Jugglers started out with little fanfare. Going 0-5 meant another forgettable season and another year without a playoff berth. But Notre Dame righted the ship just enough to end the season on a high note, going on a 3-1 run that included a memorable 29-28 win over Bishop Ludden on a 2-point conversion attempt with 19 seconds remaining in the contest.

“It was a fantastic football game and a lot of momentum carried over into the winter,” Abraham said. “It was just great for morale to end the season that way and it just carried over.”

Another aspect has been the transformation of the usually doldrum-like offseason into a period for developing unity. The catalyst was a new and spacious weight room and a rigorous offseason-strengthening program.

“I think that’s been pretty important in what we’ve done,” Abraham said, adding that the offseason program has also drawn other students to the program. “ A lot of kids saw the camaraderie we had. We started with a base group and it was kind of funny because back in January or February we’d see kids coming into my office talking about wanting to go out for the football team.”

The coaching staff counts 64 student athletes between both varsity and junior-varsity squads, a considerable improvement over past turnouts.

With Abraham, Rizzo and another alum from the 1983 team, Athletic Director John DePerno, in the program, fans at Notre Dame are hopeful of a return to the program’s glory. But Abraham also wants to build on the winning tradition of the school’s enormously successful basketball and baseball programs.

“We have a very powerful tradition in basketball and baseball — and our football tradition has historically been pretty strong,” the coach said. “So we’re trying to get that spirit back and we’re getting great support not only from the kids, but also from the families. “

Alumni and student athletes’ families were among the key contributors in funding the construction of the weight room Abraham sees as so instrumental.

“I came here in 2003 as a volunteer assistant and the first thing I noticed was not that we didn’t have very good skill kids, but that they weren’t very strong,” Abraham said. “We were getting manhandled on the field. It kind of makes sense because the public schools that we compete against, they all have beautiful weight facilities.”

The coaching staff is attempting to model its program on the success of nearby Christian Brothers Academy, the defending New York State Class AA Champions. Abraham sees no reason why Notre Dame cannot return to its place atop high-school football in the Mohawk Valley region.

“Now we’re down in Class C football and it’s been a lofty fall from grace and I think a lot of teams have enjoyed beating up on Notre Dame the last few years,” Abraham said. “I know some teams enjoyed beating up on us last year. But if the kids keep doing what they’re supposed to do we can turn the tables.”

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