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Riverdale’s ‘Baby Birds’ look to fly high this season

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Joe Otero had just put a wrap on practice last week when he was asked about the turnover his Riverdale Country School program had endured since last season. He mentioned up to 10 freshmen dotting his roster for the upcoming football season, and that one of them could end up as his starting quarterback.

But when Otero was asked who that on-the-field leader might be, there was hesitation.

“Conor,” Otero said. When asked for his last name, more hesitation and then laughs. Then Otero turned to assistant coach Matt Springer for help. None came.

Yes, that’s how young the Falcons are going to be this season.

Name tags may be every bit as important as playbooks in the beginning as Otero not only learns which of his newbies can play which position, but learns who they are as well.

“We had the same guys for the past four years who pretty much started for four years, and now we’re practically starting over from scratch,” Otero said. 

“We’re going to be very young.”

But there is talent on the roster, and it starts with the senior captain trio of wide receiver/defensive back Zach Gronfein, center/linebacker Sam Lipin, and running back/linebacker Dylan Mack.  

“They will be filling some big shoes,” Otero said. “Zach has to fill Ernie’s shoes, and Dylan will look to fill in for Jeffrey.”

The Falcons lost, among others, quarterback Ryan Rosenzweig, wide receiver Ernie Robertson, and running back Jeffrey Barrett from last year’s team due to graduation.

And while junior Harry Landis and freshman Conor O’Neil will vie for the starting quarterback position, there are other units Otero is confident will become areas of power.

“Our offensive line is pretty strong where we have three out of the five guys returning,” Otero said, referring to Lipin and tackles Jacob Shin and Nate Braus. “Our defense is very strong because we have all of our linebackers back from last year. David Korn, Dylan Mack, Kofi Samuels and Sam Lipin are all back. And our defensive line has some of the same guys as last year. 

“So defensively, I think we’re going to be really strong. Offensively we’re starting to come together.”

Despite the heavy turnover, Gronfein believes there is reason for optimism.

“I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people,” he said. “I think we have two competent quarterbacks and I’m confident I can fill Ernie’s shoes and get the ball and hopefully score some touchdowns. I’m really confident in D-Mack at running back, and I think he can have an even better season than Jeffery did and can replicate things (former Riverdale stud) Avery (Hoffman) did a couple of years ago. 

“I’m very excited for what we’re looking like. I like the direction we’re going in.”

Lipin, the senior greybeard on the offensive line, also is stoked for the Falcons’ possibilities this season.

“I’m excited for the challenge of finding new people in new spots,” Lipin said. “It’s basically a totally different team because we have different weapons, different strengths and different weaknesses. But I’m excited what we potentially can do.”

Aside from an almost entirely new roster, something else that’s new this season is the Metropolitan Independent Football League will hold playoffs for the first time. So the 2018 season will see the MIFL anoint its first true champion.

“It’s something I’ve been pushing for since I’ve been here,” Otero said. “There are two rounds of playoffs, so that’s really good news for us. Now we can crown a real champion.” 

The chance to play for a ring, so to speak, also has the Falcons’ juices flowing.

“In past years if you lose a game to the best team in the league you were sort of out,” Gronfein said. “But now you lose one or two and you’re still in it. There’s still potential for a championship and we want to leave here with a ring because that’s something you remember forever.”

The new playoff format gives new life to teams with early season losses.

“Last season we started 3-0 and said, ‘OK, this championship is ours,’ and then we lost our first game and that was it,” Lipin said. “Now if we lose one the season is not over. It’s going to be a lot of fun trying to get that trophy.”

And let’s not forget, before winning a potential MIFL title, there is that King of the Hill crown that goes to the owner of the best head-to-head record among the three Riverdale schools — the Falcons, Fieldston and Horace Mann. Mack certainly hasn’t overlooked it.

“Our first goal is winning King of the Hill and then, obviously, getting into the playoffs and winning a potential championship,” Mack said. “I’m really looking forward to this season.”

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