Groton football is in a transition year. The team is exceptionally young, with only four seniors on the roster, three of which are starters, all led by new head coach Joe Manning.
Last year’s team was coached by Eric Prior, who tragically passed away in the offseason after accepting a basketball coaching gig with Tompkins Cortland Community College. Before Friday’s home opener, a moment of silence was held at Ross Field in honor of the fallen one-year coach, who impacted many as both the football and basketball coach in Groton.
While Manning is familiar with many players on the team through his involvement with the town’s youth football program and experience coaching the modified football team for the past five seasons, stepping in to coach a team with only four returning seniors have led to growing pains.
Those struggles have been evident early on. The Indians started the season on the road with a 32-6 loss to Whitney Point, followed by a 46-14 defeat in their home opener against Delhi.
Both opponents are 2-0 on the year and have a strong senior core. Manning recognizes that improving to be more competitive against teams like this can be just as valuable as a winning record for a young team.
“I think a successful season can be weighed in different ways too,” Manning said. “If you’re playing a lot of good teams and a lot of older teams, being competitive is a success. We’re young, so that’s big.”
With that in mind, Manning does not have unrealistic expectations for his first season and is not putting unnecessary pressure on his squad. Asking a team that has not had a winning season since 2016 to produce one with a new coach and a considerable amount of inexperience would be simply unreasonable. Manning is doing the opposite with this team.
“We are an extremely young team. I think we’re only starting three seniors,” Manning said. “We’re young. We’re going to take our lumps this year and we’ll just keep fighting.”
Friday night was Manning’s first time coaching the varsity team at Ross Field. It’s a unique venue for high school football, as it’s not connected to the high school. Instead, the field is tucked away off Main Street and enclosed by trees, evoking a Field of Dreams-like feel for the Indians.
While finally being able to coach the varsity team under the yellow-tinted lights is a great experience, Manning acknowledged getting beaten in a one-sided loss in front of the Groton faithful puts a damper on the memory.
A bright spot on the field that night was junior running back Kalib Manning, who scored the first touchdown for the Indians on Friday night. His combination of speed around the offensive line and resistance to being tackled was very effective.
“He was a tough runner last year for us as a 10th-grader,” coach Manning said. “He’s an 11th-grader now, so he’ll keep working hard. He’s a hard-working kid. We’ll just keep trying to get him better every week.”
He’ll have another year to keep improving Kalib’s game, but this will be Manning’s only year with senior quarterback Brystal Neff, whose younger brother Jeter is a backup to Manning in the backfield. A sophomore in Owen Crispell is waiting in the wings for his opportunity to be the lead signal-caller for the Indians, giving Manning time to develop him as a player.
On the other side of the ball, Manning is looking to patch up the little things to improve the defense for the remainder of the season.
“On defense, we have to keep our assignments. Coach [Justin] Albro is a great coach. He does great with defensive assignments,” Manning said. “Some of our kids just need to pick up their assignments. We knew what was coming at us and we told them what was coming at us. They’re young players, they’ll make mistakes.”
The Groton Indians last won the Section IV tournament in 2009, and it will take time for the Indians to return to that status. Coach Manning, however, is up for the task. The familiarity is already there due to his involvement in the youth football, and with that, success will come as his bonds with these players grow stronger.
Ross Field will host another Friday night football game this week with Groton welcoming Deposit/Hancock to town. Deposit/Hancock has had its own struggles, getting out-scored 75-20 in the first two games of the season. Groton football’s win column could very well have its first tally for the season by the end of this week.
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