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Rich Robbins loves a challenge.
Upon being informed that his Buffalo (N.Y.) Canisius program would not be among those listed when the preseason RivalsHigh 100 rankings of high school football teams is announced beginning July 29, he was ready to get back to work in the weight room and on the recruiting front.
As coach of a program on the rise, Robbins said he understands the perceptions of teams in his area but believes that the group he will field this year is exceeding expectations and could prove deserving of recognition.
"When we got here two-plus years ago as a staff, we made a plan for the future and it included being in the RivalsHigh 100 rankings," Robbins said. "I can show you the paper to prove it -- by year five we wanted to be ranked nationally, and I think we are ahead of that plan.
"At the time, we probably wouldn't have been in the discussion for the top 250 teams in the country, but with the group here now -- especially our defense -- if we are undefeated again and play like I expect, I do not think that top 50 is out of the question."
Canisius will start the year on the outside looking in, but it is much closer to inclusion than many teams from the state have been historically.
The Crusaders are well within the top 250 and sit atop the preseason rankings for the New England Region -- a group of non-power states that includes Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont -- which historically has had at least one team included in the preseason and final polls.
New York has had just three programs included with the nation's elite, and only once has it had a member represented in the final poll -- when Melville (N.Y.) St. Anthony went 14-0 and ranked No. 100 in 2011.
Robbins is originally from Wexford (Pa.) North Allegheny, which won the state title last season and finished No. 12 in the RivalsHigh 100. He said he knows what good football looks like and that his school is playing it.
"We are building it right here," he said. "I have coaches on the staff with experience playing and coaching in Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Texas -- all over, really -- and what we have done is change the culture at Canisius.
What's in the Can(isius)?
The talent pool at Canisius got deeper with the addition of Tyrone Wheatley, but what does the combination of Wheatley and Qadree Ollison bring to the field? Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell has seen both in action during the Rivals Camp Series presented by Under Armour, and he breaks down their games:
Qadree Ollison, three-star RB, 6-1, 226
"Ollison is a big back who I think will be effective in short yardage as well as the passing game. He isn't a burner, but once he gets going he can be a load to stop. His surprisingly sure hands help to make him a difference maker in high school and should help get him on the field at the next level."
Tyrone Wheatley, class of 2015 DE, 6-6, 245
"He's a ball of clay right now and just needs to get molded. The athletic ability is there, without question. He could be a defensive end or a tight end, but he also has the frame to become a very active offensive lineman if he wants to. I am sure he has no plans to be on the line, but you can see that he can do so much. I think with his talent that he could not have picked a better school to go to in Buffalo."
"We improved our strength and conditioning program to get bigger and stronger, and we have improved our academic support system for kids. This is a private Jesuit school, and it challenges kids to be the best academically as well as athletically. I compare it to an Ivy League experience."
Last year, the Crusaders won the Monsignor Martin League and went 11-0. This season, CHS returns 14 starters -- eight on defense -- but a major part of the improvement has been made by attracting new talent.
Canisius recently welcomed Brad Zaffram from Amherst (N.Y.) Sweet Home, Mitch Thomas from Atlanta, and Tyrone Wheatley from Manlius (N.Y.) Fayetteville-Manlius.
Wheatley is the son of former NFL running back and current Buffalo Bills assistant coach Tyrone Wheatley. The class of 2015 defensive end has offers from Alabama, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Penn State, Syracuse, Washington and Wisconsin.
Zaffram and Thomas could join class of 2015 defensive back Josh Huffman and class of 2014 middle linebacker Mike Sharpe, a three-year starter, as prospects who land offers.
The supporting cast will surround three-star senior running back Qadree Ollison, who has narrowed his list of schools to Penn State, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse and Wisconsin.
Ollison said the new faces make him feel more comfortable and confident.
"There is more talent here than I have seen before," he said. "Now I don't have to worry as much, to be honest. I know there are guys who can make the plays or at least be in the right spot to make the play.
"It makes you feel good to know that you don't have to get outside of your game to make a spectacular play. There is trust all around the field right now."
Robbins makes it known that his goal is to be in the RivalsHigh 100 consistently and that the way to do that is by getting more good players into the system as early as possible.
"I want every kid who shows top-level potential in eighth grade to want to come to Canisius," he said. "We do not make contact with kids once they are into a program because that is not professional, but I want it to be a no-brainer for kids to pick us over places like St. Francis or St. Joe's.
"We still battle schools for kids, and I don't look at our desire to have the best on the football field any differently than our band director wanting the best young saxophone player or our English teachers wanting the kid who won a Shakespeare Award. We all want to have the best and the brightest, and that extends to the football field."
The most recent example is getting Wheatley.
He is a talented but raw prospect who had a choice of schools when his father was hired by the Bills after spending three seasons on staff at Syracuse with Doug Marrone.
Robbins and his staff went after him hard.
"Like a lot of schools in the area, we had a meeting with the family and knew that we had a great academic message as well as athletic opportunities," Robbins said. "Tyrone was an Academic All-American, so we knew we weren't going to get anything by him. But what won him over, I think, was the diversity of our staff and the campus.
"T.J.'s mom didn't want him to go to a private school, so she was more difficult. We were making pie charts and graphs, and sending her information in the mail. We compared SAT scores, GPAs, how much scholarship money was being earned by each school, and we got her that information and then she started opening up to us.
"Our football, basketball, academics and facilities really should sell themselves," Robbins said. "But some people need to see it all and really feel comfortable with the decision and we want to make sure that is what happens. We have great support from our administration and alumni; that is putting things in place that no one else in Buffalo has. We are doing football like it is in Pittsburgh, like it is in Texas, not like it is in Buffalo."
RivalsHigh New England Preseason Top 10
For the first time in six years there will not be a team from the New England cluster of states represented in the preseason RivalsHigh100, but that does not mean there are not quality teams within the borders of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont. Here are the top 10 teams from the region as the season approaches:
1. Buffalo (N.Y.) Canisius: This is the clear No. 1 team in the region and a viable candidate for the national rankings. A lot will be determined by how it performs against Cardinal Mooney because programs from this region have struggled mightily when taking on teams from higher-profile states.
2. Danvers (Mass.) St. John's: There is a solid gap here, but St. John's was another easy choice as the top team in its state. Led by running back Johnathan Thomas, a Maryland commit, it figures to be an easy pick to win the Super Bowl.
3. Reading (Mass.) Memorial: With a very good offensive line, a good defense and two-star quarterback Drew Belcher, this program should roll into the semifinals without facing much of a challenge.
4. Norwich (Conn.) Free Academy: Boston College commit Marcus Outlow is the top player in the state, and the running back should have his team in the finals. He was hurt last year and couldn't finish the job, which provides motivation this year.
5. Ansonia (Conn.) High: This is not a deep squad, which causes concern, but having running back Arkeel Newsome on the field helps. The three-star is committed to Connecticut, and he has a 3,000-yard season to his credit.
6. Everett (Mass.) High: A program that has been ranked nationally in the preseason and at the end of the year is in a bit of a rebuild on offense. The defense should be good enough for the team to advance in the playoffs, but scoring points could be interesting.
7. Orchard Park (N.Y.) High: One of the finalists to land Tyrone Wheatley, this public school returns four starters on the offensive line and could be one of the better squads in the area.
8. Melville (N.Y.) St. Anthony's: The last team from the region to make the RivalsHigh100 returns an experienced group that suffered a 59-21 loss at the hands of Oradell (N.J.) Bergen Catholic last season.
9. Syracuse (N.Y.) Christian Brothers: Following an 11-1 season, there are many people who believe this is the team that could emerge from New York Class AA. Dual-threat quarterback J.R. Zazzara is a big reason for that thinking.
10. Natick (Mass.) High Led by two-star Troy Flutie, nephew of former NFL quarterback Doug Flutie, this program could contend for a title in Massachusetts. The younger Flutie is a two-star receiver but plays quarterback in high school. His athletic ability can take over games on this level.
Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said college programs are taking notice.
"Trust me, there is not a college coach who wants to make a trip to Western New York, but that staff and those kids are making it a must stop," Farrell said. "There is a really good group of players there right now, and all signs point to that continuing."
Robbins said the added presence of college coaches makes it easier for his message to spread.
"I'll tell you what, nothing is better than when I am walking around the campus with parents and have Wisconsin coaches coming to talk to me and Rutgers coaches are there, too," he said. "I can't plan it better than those things happening, and I know that we are unique in that experience. Our kids are being recruited, and I don't think that is happening at many other places in this area."
Ollison said he sees the increased intensity in the weight room because of the attention.
"I have my coaches coming in, and there are coaches who are on T.J. that will be here, too, and that makes more opportunities for the young guys to get seen and they want to take advantage," he said. "We have a couple of guys who I think are legit Division I players and they are going to get seen, but it makes everyone work harder."
Ollison said he is starting to get to know Wheatley at voluntary team lifting and he sees the potential that he brings to the team. Wheatley also shadowed Ollison for a day while he was deciding where to attend high school.
"We got to talk when he was here, and he seemed cool," Ollison said. "I think he can help the team and help the other players."
With his five-year plan accelerating, Robbins said his next step is to go from attracting top players to landing top opponents.
This year, the team will play Rochester (N.Y.) Aquinas Institute, Youngstown (Ohio) Cardinal Mooney and Cuyahoga Falls (Ohio) Walsh Jesuit. It has played Erie (Pa.) Cathedral Prep and Cleveland (Ohio) St. Ignatius in the last five years.
The transformation has taken the schol from a 58-0 loss to Walsh Jesuit in 2009 to a 14-7 victory last season, but Robbins knows that is not enough to silence doubters.
"It was a knuckles-out win last year, and we are proud of it," he said. "We went into games against teams like St. Iggy and Erie Cathedral and didn't have it in the trenches and they put it on us, but we are a different program now and are ready to add more challenges.
"We have a mandatory five games with our league, but as the program grows we want to take on better teams. We hope to be calling on the Don Boscos of the world soon; if there is a spot on our schedule, we will play anyone because that is what the elite programs do. Win or lose, they want the challenge."
Come December, there could be a different look to the RivalsHigh100 and a smile on the face of Robbins.
"It is OK to not be ranked now, because I know that the poll changes so much during the year and what the last poll looks like is more important," he said. "We play a different brand of football here, and we are leaps and bounds ahead of where we were; I am proud of that, but we still have goals that we haven't accomplished."
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