Erik O’Bryan is no stranger to taking over programs in need of repair.
For years Niagara Wheatfield boys basketball was considered an afterthought in winter sports, taking a back seat to habitually successful wrestling and hockey teams. But three months ago, the Falcons won the Niagara Frontier League for the first time ever and captured their first Section VI championship since 1973.
Now O’Bryan is tasked with turning around the Niagara Wheatfield football team after being approved as the new head coach by the district board of education on Wednesday.
He has served as the school’s boys basketball coach since 2011, but joined the football staff last season under previous coach Joe Kiszka. O’Bryan is looking to bring stability to a program that is now on its fourth head coach in seven seasons.
“Every couple years there’s someone telling (players) something different,” O’Bryan said. “We need some longevity here, we need some stability here, we need kids to know that somebody’s going to be here and what they’re doing now on JV is what they’re going to do when they get to the varsity.”
When O’Bryan – who was previously an assistant at North Tonawanda for a decade, over two stints – became an assistant coach last fall, he didn’t envision taking over one year later. Kiszka took the helm during the pandemic and was beginning to make strides, despite going 2-12 in two seasons.
Seven players were signed up to play football at this time last year and there are currently 70 between varsity and junior varsity slated to play when fall camp opens in August. Kiszka was planning to build a program with lasting power, but a new state job was too beneficial for his family to pass up.
Kiszka took a post in testing and investigations in the Department of Motor Vehicles and it would have made balancing coaching and raising his own kids too difficult. He admitted moving away from coaching for now was difficult because of the progress made within the program in a short time.
“Not something I wanted to step away from,” Kiszka said. “I loved the kids and coaching. With the new job and my kids, I had to make the tough decision. “
Naturally O’Bryan will put some personal touches on the program, but overall there won’t be many changes from the Kiszka era. In fact, he is expected to be the lone departure on the staff. O’Bryan helped with the defense last season, while offensive coordinator Steve Fronusiak is returning.
O’Bryan believes the football team can copy the progress of the boys basketball team, but before thinking about championships, he wants to simply make the playoffs. The Falcons haven’t qualified for sectionals since 2011 and have finished above .500 three times in the last 15 years.
“Any coach has those goals that you want to reach and when you reach those goals, you try to reach even higher ones,” O’Bryan said. “… Step one would be that we need to qualify for the Section VI playoffs, not just the Chuck Funke (consolation) playoffs.”
Although O’Bryan admits he can’t teach players how to win, the football team has several players who have experienced success in other sports. Xander Fletcher, who was voted the NFL’s top boys basketball player this season, had a strong first campaign as the starting quarterback, throwing for 1,383 yards, 13 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Basketball teammate Shawn Watson emerged as a significant threat at receiver as a sophomore, hauling in 31 passes for 452 yards and six touchdowns. Meanwhile, Te’Shaun and Tremell Mathews are state-qualifying wrestlers.
“You have to get the good kids in there. You need a mixture. You need athletes, ”O’Bryan said. “I like to think that most kids who have played for me know we encourage kids to play more sports. I don’t want them to play one sport. Our basketball team has gotten better because we have athletes. “
Nick Saturday can be reached via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @NickSabatoGNN.