Hilbert football starts from scratch to build roster and set foundation for future | College Sports

Anthony Homa considered walking on to the University at Buffalo football team, or going to junior college. When he received a message from Hilbert College’s football coaching staff about the prospect of joining the school’s first football program, Homa was intrigued.

What drew him to Hilbert wasn’t just the opportunity to play football. It was the chance to help build a program from scratch.

Being only a few miles away from home didn’t hurt, either, for Homa, a Grand Island resident and a wide receiver who played football in 2020 at Rodriguez High School in Fairfield, Calif., And at Bethel University, an NAIA program in McKenzie, Tenn., In 2021.

“I see this as a chance for us to set a legacy and for me to lead a great group of players, and be led by a great group of coaches,” Homa said.

“I see it more than just as, ‘This is the first program,’ because you can set things in stone right away, for 30 years. That’s the biggest reason I committed. ”

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At UB, Alex Pond focused on earning a degree and experiencing college life. Football should have been behind him. But he joined an intramural 7-on-7 football league on campus, and learned from a friend late last semester that a nearby college was starting a football program.

He wanted to play again. He spent an afternoon at Nardin Academy’s indoor facility in North Buffalo earlier this year, creating a video of his workouts, and sent the footage to Hilbert’s coaches.

“I realized how much I missed the game,” said Pond, a quarterback who played high school football at Jordan-Elbridge in central New York.

“I realized I needed football back in my life. I go to UB, and when one of my friends told me Hilbert was creating a brand new program, it was like, ‘This is the best opportunity I have to play football again.’ “

Homa, Pond, and so many more of Hilbert’s incoming recruits have a goal of creating history for a program that has none. The Hawks will begin their first season of competition at the Division III level in September.

Hilbert has a goal of having 80 to 100 players on its first roster, all of whom are expected to be incoming freshmen. Since January, the program has continuously announced its committed recruits on its social media accounts – at least 60 players have committed, with the most recent additions coming Wednesday. Division III programs do not offer athletic scholarships.

Its recruits who have committed to the program are training on their own at local facilities, in workout sessions mapped out by Hilbert’s strength and conditioning coaches and organized by incoming players.

Hilbert is hinging its hopes on the local passion for football in Western New York, as well as the dearth of Division III football programs in the region. When the Hawks open their inaugural eight-game schedule Sept. 10 against Denison in the Southtowns, they’ll be only the second Division III football program within a 30-mile radius of Buffalo, joining Buffalo State.

Hilbert announced in November that it would add three sports that would begin competition in the 2022-23 school year: Football, men’s and women’s track and field, and women’s ice hockey. Hilbert aims to grow its community, with the goal of having an enrollment of 1,200 students; the school’s website lists its current enrollment at 800-plus students.

In its initial statement regarding athletic expansion, the school said the addition of new sports helps to advance Hilbert’s strategic plan, which was introduced in February 2020.

Football, though, is one of the biggest and heaviest lifts in the expansion. Since Hilbert announced it will add those sports, Hilbert head coach Jim Kubiak and his staff have had a little more than six months to recruit players, to schedule games and practices, purchase equipment, work with budgets and sell a program to potential college athletes.

Hilbert doesn’t have an official football field on its campus in Hamburg. Its on-campus football offices are austere, absent of any of the pageantry or accomplishments of its coaching staff, which includes Kubiak – a former Naval Academy quarterback and a former NFL coach who is also a contributor to The News’ coverage of the Buffalo Bills – longtime NFL and college coach Chuck Lester, and former Canadian Football League and St. Francis High School wide receiver Luke Tasker.

The most important part of the equation has been finding athletes, even given that football is the most popular participation sport for boys nationally and in New York, according to the most recent athletic participation data distributed by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Kubiak and his staff began by looking at players in Western New York, a region they see as under-recruited and overlooked. Among his staff is Justin Sherlock, a former Fredonia High School football coach whose concentration is on recruiting. Sherlock is also the founder of Pro Scout Digital, which designs social media campaigns aimed at helping high school athletes in the recruiting process.

Yet there’s also a sell Hilbert’s coaches have to make, even with the enticement of an immediate opportunity to play college football. That’s especially obvious for Sherlock, who has the task of looking for and building relationships with potential recruits in Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties, which aren’t exactly football hotbeds.

“It’s easy to get them interested in the idea, but it’s harder, than maybe, Erie and Niagara counties, where there’s no recruiting coordinators, or access to them is hard,” Sherlock said. “At some of those schools, coaches just coach from August until October and they’re done, or they (players) just never thought they would be able to have the opportunity to play in college. Those are the challenges that present themselves. ”

High school coaches in the area, which includes Section VI and Monsignor Martin High School Athletic Association schools, have been both receptive and skeptical of the task that Hilbert’s staff is undertaking, Kubiak said.

“It’s been all over the board, like, ‘Wow’ or ‘Boy, that’s going to be a big job,'” Kubiak said. “I would say, overall, it’s been a very warm reception, but I also think there are kids have changed, in terms of, do they want to go away to a big school or do they want to stay close to home? Back when I was being recruited, I desperately wanted to go away. I don’t see as much of that with recruits nowadays. So, building relationships with the coaches is really important, and as we do that, it’s about telling them who we are, who we have (on staff) and why we’re doing what we’re doing and sometimes asking for their help, and getting the real details on each individual as we go through this. ”

Assembling that first roster also comes with a challenge. Hilbert’s staff has had cases where they try to recruit a potential athlete, with the thought that the person would make an immediate impact on the program, but then that recruit decides Hilbert might not be the right fit. Recruiting can be a cutthroat endeavor, as well, as Hilbert is vying with other Division III programs in the region with an established tradition, including Buffalo State, Brockport and St. John Fisher, to draw players.

Hilbert’s coaches also have to determine depth at each position and in each position group, without any previous framework or returning players.

The athletes are listening, though. Not just in Randolph or Fredonia or Buffalo and its suburbs, but also around the country. Of the online football recruiting questionnaires that the football staff has received about interest in the program, they’ve come from potential prospects who live as far away as Oregon and Florida.

Hilbert’s commits have also become recruiters, in a way, as well. Homa, who organizes workouts for Hilbert’s recruits in the area, committed to the Hawks on Feb. 17 and immediately reached out to other players who committed to the program. At least 35 commits are part of two group chats, and continue to reach out to more prospective recruits.

In fact, Homa, Pond and Noble Arterberry, a lineman from Welland, Ont., Were climbing hills and running routes Wednesday at UB’s Walter Kunz Stadium, an impromptu workout organized by Homa.

“Every day, that recruiting is still going on,” Homa said. “Other players are sending players to me and I ask them, ‘Why would you not go to Hilbert? This is a great opportunity. ‘ ”

Creating something from nothing

There isn’t much to Kubiak’s office on campus – the walls are white and so is the dry-erase board that’s to the right of his desk, one that comes to life as Kubiak diagrams an offensive scheme to explain movement and terminology associated with the offensive line.

There’s no football-only facilities on campus, either, though a capital campaign is underway to fund an on-campus athletic complex that includes a track and a multipurpose artificial-turf field.

Hilbert will officially bring its first class of football players together when it hosts its first preseason practices in August in Hamburg, and the Hawks will play four home games at Polian Family Field in Athol Springs, St. Francis High School’s home stadium.

“We have a lot of talent, and I’m not second-guessing the coaching staff,” Homa said. “These guys who are coming in, they’re coachable. They’ll be ready. But as a first-year program you’ll hear, ‘You don’t even have your own field, you’ve got nothing.’ None of that should matter. ”

Jeff Pilarski, a wide receiver from Bishop Timon-St. Jude, committed to the Hawks in March, after he initially contacted Hilbert’s staff via Twitter.

“I wanted to be a part of that history,” Pilarski said. “We’re going to make it and I want to be a part of it.”

The fact that Hilbert doesn’t immediately have that infrastructure doesn’t deter Pilarski, either. He doesn’t look at the opportunity to be a college athlete as, there are no facilities, or, there’s no record book.

“I look at it as, I get four more years on playing football,” Pilarski said. “The facilities will be there, eventually.”

When it comes to getting bodies to fill out the roster – many whom are high school players and will join the program as true freshmen – Hilbert’s staff is adhering to a philosophy, one that its incoming players have echoed.

“You have to find players that are willing to open themselves up to that mindset and build the program,” Kubiak said. “Getting the right guys on the bus, if you will. That speaks exactly to it. You’ve got to have people who are willing and able to see that vision, project that vision and move towards it. ”

Pond, who is returning to playing football after a two-year absence, saw that vision, too.

“It’s the chance to be a part of something that’s built from the bottom,” he said. “I’d rather go into a program that has nothing and make something happen, than go into a program and have to wait to have the chance to make something happen.”


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