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Will North’s Leonard Poised to Make Big Leap in Year Two

Don’t count on a ‘sophomore slump’ from the Spartan underclassman.

It’s pretty rare for high school freshman to play varsity football right out of the gate, but in 2018 Zaire Leonard was on the field for the Williamsville North Spartans top squad before he even attended a high school class.

In most cases, teams are excited about the senior class that’s coming back, key juniors that will either be stepping into a bigger role on varsity, or maybe guys that are making the move up from junior varsity. For the Spartans, however, they have the luxury of being excited about brining a talent like Leonard back for three more years.

A little over a year ago, after participating in a camp at Sweet Home, Leonard was told by Williamsville North head coach Mike Mammoliti that he would be practicing and playing with the varsity team starting that following Monday.

“There was a lot of emotions going on,” Leonard said when reminiscing about the moment. “I was just really excited. My dad and I had always talked about it and then it actually happened. It was amazing.”

Leonard began playing football at age six and said it’s “always been his passion.” Playing on the varsity team as a freshman was a thrill and honor for him, and he also felt that being around the upperclassmen was a great learning experience.

“I learned a lot from the seniors,” Leonard said. “I didn’t really know how to take things after a loss. So I tried to see and learn how the seniors handled it, just to be humble and move on, cause there’s always going to be another day. They were great to learn from.”

Despite still being an underclassman, Leonard is poised to take a leadership role this upcoming season and in years to come. Being the second-oldest of five boys in his family, Leonard has already gotten practice being a role model at home, which is something he says has helped him become a better leader on the field.

“Speaking up louder is a big thing,” Leonard admitted. “Getting the message across in a positive way, so people can listen to me more often, but they’ll listen because it’s positive. I feel if the message is positive, they’ll want to take after it.”

Leonard has already begun to influence his teammates and peers. Despite having the ability to participate in other sports, Leonard decided to not play on a spring team in order to spend more time in the weight room and practice football with his teammates. Leonard has also gone around and talked a few peers into playing football again, something that coaches surely like to see from a leader.

“Zaire is a very upbeat and positive young man,” coach Mammoliti said. “He’s that way around school. Kids like being around him. I think that permeates to the team too. He’s been instrumental in getting a few kids who didn’t play the last few years to come back out and give it a shot. He’s got some influenece and I think he’s finding his place.”

Mammoliti admitted he knew he was getting a great athlete in Leonard when he first pulled him up to the varsity team. But, he soon learned that they had a dedicated member of the program in Zaire.

“As he matures as a young man you see how he’s finding his niche and his role,” Mammoliti said. “Everybody has a different leadership style. We’re still in the process of seeing what kind of leader [Leonard] is, because as a sophomore he’s still trying to find his way too.”

In his first year on varsity, Leonard saw most of his playing time at corner back. Heading into the fall 2019 season his role is expected to increase. Mammoliti believes Leonard will see some time on the offensive side of the ball at running back and could be involved in the return game as well.

“I’ve wanted to be a running back all my life, that’s what I grew up playing,” Leonard stated. “But looking at it now, seeing the mindset from other players and still learning, I want to play wherever and do whatever I can to help our team out.”

In preparation of seeing more playing time and having an expanded role, Leonard has pushed himself this offseason. Along with working out in the Williamsville North gym and practicing with teammates, Leonard has worked with personal trainers to improve his speed and footwork.

“I feel like nothing brings more respect to a person than what you do in the offseason,” Mammoliti stated. “You earn people’s respect [by working hard]. I think [Leonard] did that last year in the offseason and he’s doing it again this year.”

Williamsville North’s season and Leonard’s sophomore campaign will begin on Friday, September 6 when the Spartans play host to league-rival McKinley at 7:00 p.m. While he won’t be making his varsity debut this time around, Leonard admits he still feels some jitters (and excitement) with the new season approaching.

“I definitely get a little nervous before every game,” Leonard said. “I can never expect what’s going to happen or how things are going to go. So I just feel that excitement inside of me.”

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