By Rich Place

Springville Griffins head coach Rob Valenti admitted this week that when his team lost in heartbreaking fashion to Albion in last year’s season opener, it was difficult to recover.

The Griffins went 1-8 and, after losing that game in a back-and-forth contest to begin the season, they went on to play a handful of tough teams to begin the season 0-4.

“We gave up a score on a punt return for a touchdown and lost by a score and we may not have recovered,” Valenti said earlier this week. “We ended up just sitting at 0-4 and looking around because the dust hadn’t event settled yet. It was just a whirlwind.”

That’s why Valenti wants to get this season off on the right foot when the Griffins make the long trip to Maple Grove in Bemus Point to open the season on Friday. It’s the first time in history the teams will face each other, and the Red Dragons advanced to the state Class D Championship last year before losing to Cambridge.

“I think what it comes down to in this opening game is just being in the position to execute what we want to do in the game’s three facets: offense, defense and special teams, and starting strong,” said Valenti. “One of the things we struggled with last year was the proverbial getting out of the gate and starting fast.”

The fourth-year head coach is going into this season with optimism the team can improve on last year’s record, noting that off-season participation was much higher and the team comes into the opening game already having spent much more time together.

He said dating back to January, players have had the opportunity to participate in nearly 90 scheduled team events. “The offseason was actually more calendar days that our regular season,” he said.

With all the opportunities for strength and conditioning and practice, Valenti said he saw participation rise from 20 percent the previous year to 70 percent this year. Off-season events included 7-on-7 drills with Hamburg and a mini-camp.

“That went really well and it was heavily attended by varsity and JV and really positioned ourselves to hit the ground running once official practice started on Aug. 13,” he said.

The matchup against Maple Grove fits into the philosophy the Griffins focused on beginning about four years ago with increasing the level of competition in their schedule, Valenti said.

“Maple Grove is a premier program,” he said. “They’ve been playing for the state championship the last two seasons. This is a good football team — we’ve got our work cut out for us.”

In looking for more wins this year, Valenti also pointed to the fact that the staff has had more time to prepare compared to last year, when new coaches were brought in and it took a couple extra months to reorganize the staff.

“For the most part the transition has already take place and I think our kids are just in a better position,” Valenti said. He said he also held exit interviews last year with over 50 players at the end of last season to get their take on what worked and what didn’t.

Following this Friday’s season opener against Maple Grove, the Griffins play their home opener next week against Medina/Lyndonville/Barker. The game will follow a Welcome Back Celebration scheduled behind the high school to officially unveil the new Pop Warner Field sign that was erected this summer as part of the capital project.

“We really haven’t put that much of a focus on it yet,” Valenti said about next week’s game, “but Friday night, probably around 11 o’clock we are going to shift gears pretty quickly. Through the course of summer we were granted permission to the practice field so all this change was literally surrounding us.”