The season starts tonight | News, Sports, Work

Dunkirk quarterback Noah Sykes will take over as the team’s full-time starter under center this season. PJ photo by Braden Carmen

ANGOLA — High school football begins in Western New York tonight as the Dunkirk Marauders travel to Angola to take on the Lake Shore Eagles in a non-league football contest at 6:30 pm at Lake Shore High School.

The contest is one of two Section VI games on the opening night of the season, while the rest of WNY has an extra day or two of practice before their seasons begin.

“We need to get a good crowd, that part is exciting. The flip side is I think we’re prepared mentally, but I just don’t know where we’re going to be physically yet.” Dunkirk head coach Mark Benton said.

Dunkirk will dress 23 players for the first game, with seven more expected to be eligible to play in Week 2. However, of those 23 players, senior running back Quantir Nealard is the only returning starter on offense playing the same position as last a year when he rushed for more than 1,000 yards.

“Quanteer Neallard will be the man to hitch our wagon to,” Benton said entering the season opener.

Many of the new faces on the Dunkirk roster are freshmen who have moved up from the junior varsity program.

“Starting last year, we had to build the program. This is the first year most of these guys have made it to the varsity level,” Benton said. “To get the program back to where it was a few years ago, it’s not going to happen overnight.”

A year ago — after a short layoff due to COVID — the Marauders picked up their first win of the season against Lake Shore, 20-6.

Dunkirk led 6-0 after the first quarter, 14-0 at halftime and 20-0 in the second half against Lake Shore before the Eagles’ only field goal of the game.

That 20-6 victory ended up being Dunkirk’s only win of the regular season, but the Marauders won two games in the postseason Class B Chuck Funke Bowl consolation tournament. Lake Shore also finished the 2021 regular season with one win, a 28-22 victory over East Aurora.

This year will be a much different narrative regardless of the outcome. All three of Dunkirk’s touchdowns in last season’s game were scored by players who no longer play for the Marauders. The first touchdown was a Ted Roberts carry, the second was a reception by Roberts from quarterback Javier Dejesus, and the third was a carry by Dejesus. Roberts later transferred to St. Francis and Dejesus graduated.

Dunkirk also lost many other players on both sides of the ball, but Neilard remains a constant in the Marauders’ attack. Despite not finding the end zone in last season’s contest against Lake Shore, Neallard led Dunkirk with 22 carries for 156 yards.

“Neilard played well for us (against Lake Shore) last year, especially in the first series. He made some big runs for us,” Benton said.

Dunkirk’s new starting quarterback this year is Noah Sykes, who enters this season with little experience from a year ago after filling in for Dejesus at times. Sykes started two games for Dunkirk last season. Now it’s his turn to be the main man under center.

According to Benton, Lake Shore intends to return a more experienced team this season after playing a young lineup a year ago.

“They brought back many of their children. They have a solid roster and probably have more experience than us this year.” Benton said. “Their quarterback can both run and throw, so we’re going to have to plan for that. … It will be a good game. I expect it to be a tough non-league for us.”

While Dunkirk is a much younger team this year, Benton doesn’t yet know if that necessarily puts the Marauders at a disadvantage.

“This is one of the youngest teams I’ve ever started a year with. It will be both exciting and interesting. I really don’t know what to expect going in,” Benton said. “Things have been looking good so far. … Now that the games are real, I’ll be interested to see how well we can perform.”

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