The Connolly Cup is Western New York’s version of the Heisman Trophy – an award given to arguably the area’s top high school football player. There is a committee of about 15-25 individuals who volunteer their time to scout players from the shores of Lake Ontario down to the Pennsylvania border going to schools big and small, private and public. They meet a couple of times a year and vote on a final ten before picking a winner.
If you notice in that first sentence I put special attention on the word arguably – because this isn’t an exact science. It’s not about stats or how far your team goes or which teams you played or how good your teammates are or any other variables you can come up with – it’s about ALL OF THEM. And not everyone balances those different variables the same way.
Not everyone will agree on who is the top player not everyone will agree on who the top 10 players are, but that’s what makes it fun.
One of my favorite parts of the football season is talking about who the best players are. I can’t tell you how many phone calls, run-ins on the sidelines, car rides and other meet-ups turned into a conversation about who is the best of the best. I rarely ever completely agreed with the other person – but I certainly enjoyed it.
The list of players below is not a list of the top players in WNY, it’s not an attempt to predict which players will make the banquet. Am I missing players? Probably. Is there a player who no one outside their own team knows that is going to take WNY by storm this year? You bet.
This is simply of list of players who had promising or good seasons last year and have a really good opportunity to have a special year.
So, here’s to getting this year’s conversation started.
NOTE: The following is Francis Boeck’s personal take on who are the top contenders for the 2023 Connolly Cup award. The players are in alphabetical order by last name. Francis is not a Connolly Cup committee member. Any thought that this is/will serve as any kind of official watchlist for the committee would be misguided.
Samuel Atzrott – DE – Fredonia (Senior)
This young man earned the honor of having his name etched onto the Dick Gallagher Memorial “Mount Crushmore” Award after a season of terrorizing opposing quarterbacks.
Atzrott led Section VI with 20 sacks and was fifth in tackles for loss (24) as Fredonia reached the stadium for the second straight time.
If Atzrott can keep up those numbers and help Fredonia get back to the stadium with a new cast of characters – there’s no reason why he shouldn’t get some attention from the committee.
Carsen Bane – RB – Jamestown (Senior)
With 20 finalists and six winners, the Jamestown Red Raiders are no stranger to the Connolly Cup Banquet. And if the Red Raider faithful are going to make a third-straight trip to the dinner this year, it will likely be with tailback Carsen Bane.
Jamestown's running game understandably took a backseat with Division-I QB Trey Drake at the helm in 2022. But don’t be fooled Coach Tom Langworthy loves to run the ball – and helped tailback Jaylen Butera win the Cup just two years ago. And even with the aforementioned Drake leading the way, Bane still finished the season as Section VI’s 10th-leading rusher with 1,162 yards and 16 TDs.
If Bane can build on those numbers – in a tougher Class AA this year – he’ll have a strong case to make it to the banquet.
Trevor Barry – RB – Iroquois (Senior)
The Iroquois faithful had very high expectations for Barry’s junior season after rushing for over 1,300 yards during his sophomore campaign. Barry exceeded those expectations breaking school and WNY records before ultimately winning last year's Connolly Cup.
The bruising runner finished the season with 2,317 rushing yards along with a WNY record-breaking 43 touchdowns. He was a force on defense too with 56 tackles. He also set new school marks for single-season rushing yards and career touchdowns.
Perhaps more importantly, Barry helped lead the Chiefs over the hump winning the Section VI Class B title last year after losing in back-to-back trips to the final.
No player has won the award in back-to-back years. With a host of his key teammates returning and a hunger to go further, Barry may just be able to make history.
Jahyden Clark – WR – Canisius (Junior)
With a young roster, Canisius coach Kraig Kurzanski knew his team wasn’t going to have quite the success last year that the folks on Delaware Avenue are accustomed to. (They still ended up beating Aquinas, St. Joe’s (twice) and reached the MMAA final.)
The biggest bright spot for the Crusaders in 2022 was sophomore wideout Jahyden Clark. Clark immediately became a deep threat in Canisius’ second game with a 5-catch, 111-yard performance in the win over Aquinas. From then on, he became the Crusaders’ leading receiver finishing with 60 catches, 840 yards and eight touchdowns.
Clark, who has gotten interest from some Power 5 schools, will be leading a now more experienced team into 2023.
If Canisius can bounce back after their “down year”, Clark should have a case to be named a finalist.
Bryce Hinsdale – WR – CSP (Junior)
As the younger brother of a two-time NYSPHSAA champion quarterback, Bryce Hinsdale knew a lot would be expected of him. Although he plays an entirely different position, he’s certainly left the CSP faithful impressed after two years of varsity football.
Hinsdale was a top-10 receiver last year with 761 yards and six touchdowns as CSP went 7-3 (5-2 Class D) in 2022, falling to Randolph in the semifinals. He also needs just three catches to break the program's receptions record.
The wideout had the game of his life in Week 7 of last season where he made the game-winning field goal as time expired in a 22-20 victory over Franklinville/Ellicottville. He also caught two touchdowns, made two other field goals and set a WNY record for 17 receptions in a game – accounting for all of his team’s points in the process.
If the Wolfpack can reach the stadium and the now junior has a few games like that this year, Hinsdale could get a seat at the banquet.
Tyrone Hughes – RB – McKinley (Junior)
I almost put Hughes on my list last year.
This kid impressed me his freshman year as the starting tailback for an up-and-coming Macks team. McKinley took the next step last year winning their division and falling just short of the Class A semifinals.
Hughes was Section VI’s sixth-leading rusher with 1,325 yards and 14 touchdowns last year.
Now a junior, Hughes is arguably one of the top players in Class A and the Macks should be one of the favorites to reach the stadium.
If the tailback can improve his numbers this year and deliver his team to the promise land, it would be hard to not make room for him at the Banquet.
Justus Kleitz – QB – Iroquois (Sophomore)
After graduating one of the best QBs in school history in Trey Kleitz – coach Robert Pitzonka didn’t have to go far to find his replacement. In fact, he was able to go to the same household.
Justus Kleitz took the reins from big brother as a freshman and picked up where he left off. The younger Kleitz threw for 2,267 yards – just 59 yards less than Trey’s total his senior year. (Justus did play one extra game.) Nevertheless, that’s mighty impressive.
Kleitz does lose Nate Goldrick, who led Section VI with 1,030 yards in 2022. But he brings back veteran wideout Nate Blair.
However, the biggest obstacle that could prevent him from the Connolly Cup is in his own backfield – Trevor Barry – the aforementioned winner from last season.
It doesn’t happen very often, but with another dominating run to the stadium, there could be a pair of Chiefs at the banquet in December.
Joe Mest – QB – Olean (Sophomore)
It generally says a lot about a young man when his coach names him the starting varsity quarterback as a freshman.
Joe Mest answered the call quite well for coach Phil Vecchio throwing for 1,057 yards and 13 touchdowns in what turned out to be a pretty balanced offensive attack.
Mest’s efforts helped Olean to a 4-5 (3-3 B2) record and a berth in the Class B playoffs.
Unfortunately for Mest, he’s going to have to take his game to another level with a new group of receivers as he’ll lose Cade Anastasia to graduation.
But if he can, the Huskies could end up as the top dogs in Class B3. And get some members of the committee to take a trip down to Olean this season.
James McNeil Jr. – RB – Bishop Timon (Senior)
Just a few years ago, many were wondering how much longer Bishop Timon High School itself would last. Now, it appears the football program could soon be on its way to returning to league prominence.
James McNeil Jr. is the young man to lead the Tigers on that journey this year. The 6’ 2”, 200 lbs. tailback ran for a team-best 493 yards and seven touchdowns in 2022 and made 27 catches for 361 yards and two scores. He was also tied for most tackles with 51.
Also returning from last year’s squad is the promising young duo of QB Dominic Anzalone and WR Gerald McCloud.
If the trio can get even better – 2023 could be an even bigger season for the Tigers.
Caiden Overkamp – QB – Williamsville South (Junior)
My prediction for the most improved team in 2023 is the Williamsville South Billies.
After a rocky start to the season, the Billies slowly began to show they were buying into first-year head coach Joe Licata’s system going 5-5 (3-3 in Class A3). At the same time, sophomore Caiden Overkamp was emerging as a quarterback who would soon be the talk of WNY.
The Will South QB finished the year as a top-5 passer in Section VI with 2,076 yards and 22 touchdowns.
There’s no reason Overkamp can’t improve on that after a full offseason under Licata and company.
If he does, watch out.
Terrence Pendergrass – RB – St. Francis (Senior)
With ½ of one of 2022’s best backfield tandems graduated; all eyes are on Terrence Pendergrass to lead St. Francis to its third-straight Monsignor Martin crown.
Last year, Ricardo Kidd earned himself a seat at the banquet after rushing for nearly 1400 yards and 12 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Pendergrass reached the endzone just as many times running for a respectable 680 yards on just 116 carries (5.9 avg/carry).
Of course, they’d be the first to give the credit to their offensive line. A line that saw two players sign their letters of intent to play football at the next level. Luckily, 6’ 8”, 315-pound Georgia commit Marcus Harrison will be back. And I have a hard time believing St. Francis doesn’t have more linemen with college playing potential waiting for their turn.
If Pendergrass can successfully follow the blocking of his line to another MMAA title – it may take him over to Illio’s as well.
Jameer Thomas – WR – Bennett (Senior)
I’m not a big superhero guy. But Jayden Lewis and Jameer Thomas were perhaps the best Batman & Robin WNY High School Football has seen in a while. (In this scenario, Syracuse Orange lineman Rashard Perry is of course the Hulk.) Nevertheless, Thomas would have been a fantastic Batman last year on almost any other team. Instead, he proved to be a key piece to Bennett’s first state title.
The electric Thomas finished the year with 838 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns to go along with 727 yards and seven scores on the ground.
With Lewis gone, Thomas is set to be the star for Bennett - who are still the favorites in Class AA this year. If Thomas can lead them back to the Dome – I’d find it hard to believe he wouldn’t make it in the top 10.
Noah Willoughby – QB – South Park (Senior)
2021’s leading passer had a lot to prove last year with an almost entirely new group of
receivers to throw to. And while he fell just short of his sophomore season passing yards total in his junior campaign, Willoughby showed improvement in his game. After leading WNY for most of the season, the South Park QB finished third overall in passing yards (2,303) in 2022 – in part due to his team’s first round exit in the playoffs.
Willoughby sits just over 1,700 yards away from breaking the Section VI Career Passing Record held by Joe Licata and 2,600 yards from the overall WNY mark held by St. Francis’ Jerry Hickson. South Park is set to square off against Licata and the Billies in Week 4.
But with the Sparks moving down to Class B this year, I’m sure he has his sights set on something higher – a Section VI Championship.