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Culture Shift Leads To Title For Elmira Express Football Team

Posted Friday, November 15, 2013 by Mike Johnston

Culture Shift Leads To Title For Elmira Express Football Team

— The first 14 games of Elmira Express football produced four victories. The last 14 have brought one loss.

The turnaround culminated Friday when the Express beat Binghamton, 42-22, in the Section 4 Class AA championship game, improving to 9-0 and earning a shot against Syracuse Christian Brothers Academy (10-0) in a state quarterfinal at 3 p.m. Saturday at Union-Endicott.

The catalyst for change was Jimmy McCauley, who brought a new philosophy to the program when he took over as head coach in the spring of 2012. The players did the rest in earning the district’s first sectional football title since Elmira Free Academy won three straight championships from 2000 to 2002.

“I wanted to start a culture that lives and breathes football,” said McCauley, a 2003 Southside graduate. “I wanted some kids who work hard, just get after it. No excuses. They care about it and they want to win.”

Elmira has outscored its opponents by an average of 30 points. The Express is averaging 42 points per game behind a bruising offensive line and one of the most dynamic backfield combinations in the state. The defense has two shutouts and has held opposing offenses to 14 points or fewer in seven games.

The building blocks started last year, when Elmira won four straight games after starting 1-4. The Express finished 5-5, losing to Binghamton in the Section 4 final.

“It gave us a lot of confidence,” junior running back Jerry McPeak said of the late-season surge. “It showed us we can do this, we can get better and we can go undefeated next year.”

Even so, not a lot of people outside of the program saw an unbeaten regular season and a No. 18 Class AA state ranking coming. Then again, those people didn’t see the hours spent in the weight room or the summer workouts.

“Back in the offseason we thought we could be here if we put in a lot of hard work,” said senior lineman Anthony Penn. “I think we were the only ones who thought that. We believed in ourselves and we came out and proved we could do it.

“Everybody putting in the hard work. That’s where we won games.”

Running wild

Elmira’s success starts with the double-wing offense that former Corning West head coach Mike Johnston Jr. brought to Elmira Free Academy in 2010 and which remained since Elmira Free Academy and Southside combined before the 2011 season.

The offense features two wingbacks and a fullback. In the case of the Express, the wingbacks are the lighting-quick tandem of McPeak and senior Eli Thomas.

Thomas has carried 86 times for 1,059 yards and 18 touchdowns, with six additional touchdowns coming on catches and returns. McPeak has 131 carries for 1,300 yards and 17 touchdowns, with two receiving scores.

Elmira has rushed for 274 yards or more in every game except last week’s win over Binghamton, when the Express ran for 187 yards but still averaged 7 yards per carry.

“We’ve got some guys who, you give them space and they can take it the distance,” McCauley said. “Our linemen are very coach-able, they’re eager to learn and they’re eager to get better every single day. It’s just fun watching it.”

McPeak was one of Section 4’s top rushers last year with 1,355 yards. Thomas, who has 14 touchdowns of 30 yards or longer, played most of the time on the defensive side of the ball.

“I worked really hard in the offseason,” he said of his big season. “A lot of us were busting our butts in the offseason and it’s paid off.”

Said McCauley: “Those two have been doing a great job. They’ve been carrying the team, they do a great job of picking everybody else up and they do a great job of setting the tone for each game.”

The rest of the offense has been less flashy but no less vital. Senior quarterback Rasean Brooks has made few mistakes and come up with some key passes on the rare occasions he has been asked to throw. Senior fullback Kevin Snyder is a big blocker who has had some key runs of his own.

Then there are the guys up front. Along with Penn at offensive tackle, Elmira’s line includes guards James Mechalke and Levi Stevenson, center Frankie Piper, tackle CJ Nichols and tight ends Darius Ham and Kyrel Guinta.


“It’s all our line up front,” Thomas replied when asked about the team’s ground game. “It’s honestly easy. They just open something up and we have the easy part.”

The respect is reciprocal.

“We take a lot of pride,” Penn said. “We like blocking for Eli and Jerry. They run hard. And also Kevin, too.”

Unified in victory

The offensive line is in tune on and off the field, Penn said.

“Since the beginning of two-a-days we hang out all the time,” he said. “It’s a really close group of guys. We work hard in the weight room together and have built a bond over the last 10 weeks.”

The bond extends to the rest of the team, which helps explain why so many people showed up in the summer on their off days.

“We had a lot of people in the offseason come work out, come do extra stuff, extra hills, running, and come up on the field and doing extra routes and everything else,” McPeak said.

Players don’t want to let each other down and are there to pick each other up when needed. They get together for team dinners before every game.

“We’re all family,” Thomas said. “A lot of us have been together since seventh grade, so we have a really good bond. We have fun, but we get what we need to do done.”

McCauley and assistant Dave Holleran are longtime friends who played together at Southside and Cortland State. Johnston and Jeff Edwards, the team’s other assistants, are also close friends who previously coached together at Corning West.

“It’s very nice on my end when I can lean on some people or get some advice from those three,” McCauley said. “It just makes my job a lot easier and a lot more fun.”

A thrilling ride

The trials of the 3-6 inaugural season of the Express, in which head coach Mike Kessler was replaced during the season for unspecified reasons, are long forgotten.

Penn said the team has received noticeable support within the school and the Express is enjoying all this season has brought.

“This is real fun,” McPeak said. “Oh my God, it’s the greatest season I’ve ever had, ever been in.”

McPeak said McCauley makes the sport fun while also keeping the players focused. The players have responded to his message.

“This group of kids we have, they’re an awesome group,” McCauley said. “They work hard and they come every single day ready to work. As a coach, that’s all you can ask.

“It’s just been a nice season and a great opportunity for both ends: us seeing these guys grow and those guys being able to have the experiences they do. We’re hoping to keep it going for a little bit longer.”

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