The Syracuse Strong has quickly become one of the nation’s hottest young developmental football teams. In just their fourth year of existence, the Strong are getting ready for their third national bowl game appearance as they travel to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to take on the Virginia Titans in The Sunshine Bowl.
“The value of an opportunity to play in a national bowl game cannot be overstated,” Strong owner Khalid Bey told Developmental Football USA. “The opportunity to showcase your talent and your brand across markets is great for the players, coaches and for business. I believe that the opportunity exist for minor league football to establish or reestablish real value in the marketplace. To win a second national bowl game for a young four-year old program would be something.”
The Strong kicked off operations in 2015 en route to an 8-2 season and an Empire Football League Championship. Then, in 2016, they repeated as EFL Champions on their way to a 14-0 regular season, a No. 1 national ranking (National Football Events’ Coaches Poll) and a national bowl game appearance. Their perfect season ended in overtime, 18-12, to the Virginia Crusaders in the Strong’s first ever appearance on the national stage.
In 2017, the Strong took home its first piece of national hardware following a 15-6 win over the Michigan Hurricanes in the Glory Bowl III in New Orleans to cap off a 12-4 record. Not only was that a new milestone for the Strong, it also launched them to new heights in 2018.
“I wouldn’t say that the Glory Bowl changed our trajectory,” Bey said. “It was our intent to move in a certain direction and in this immediate past season we saw the fruits of past labors. As an organization we set certain milestones for team victories, organization sponsorships, brand improvement and we did well in those areas.
“I cannot go without mentioning the grit which with our players played. We took home four trophies so far for 2018. Four down, the Sunshine Bowl in Fort Lauderdale to go.”
The Strong won the Northeast Football Alliance Eastern Division, followed by the NFA Championship and the team’s first ever New York State Championship on their way to a No. 5 national ranking by NFE, among summer and fall teams. Another national win would be icing on the cake for the Strong.
“We expect the game to be very competitive,” Bey said.
The Sussex Stags of the Major Football League defeated the Strong in a non-league game to give them their only loss of 2018. Two other teams that are household names at this level also played the Strong close, but the Strong came out victorious in a 10-7 win over the Troy Fighting Irish and edged off the nation’s longest running team, the Watertown Red & Black, by a field goal in overtime.
“As the season progressed, we found our rhythm, so in subsequent encounters, our margins of victory were greater,” Bey said.
Achieving such a level of success takes every man doing his job and doing it well, from the quarterback, to the kicker, to the trainers and everyone in between. While every championship is a team effort at the end of the day, special talents are still vital to paving the path to prominence and the Strong has several such talents.
“We have a two-headed monster at quarterback in Marty Clanton and Shakem Buckman,” Bey said. “Both are pass and run threats. It doesn’t matter which one is behind center, the play will be dynamic.”
With an electrifying and speedy stable of receivers to throw to, in Josh Thomas, Zayvon Watkins, LaQuan Rouse, Nick Barksdale and Chris Leonard, the sky is the limit for this offense.
Defensively, Domonique “Big Dee” Harris holds down the line and plugs running lanes while linebackers E.J. Mayweather and Damion Blue are close behind to clean up anything else.
“Those guys are a terror for any offense,” Bey said.
The New Year is just one day old, but still the Strong has already been working to sustain this level of success well beyond another season.
“We’re still trying to lock down some non-league home games for the last weekend in May and the first weekend in June,” Bey said. “Our intent is to two-peat as NFA and NYS Champions and to play in and win a legitimate National Championship bowl game in January 2020.”
Oftentimes, the programs that win the most are the first to admit that winning isn’t everything. Sure, it’s nice, sure it’s the goal every Saturday of every season, but for the Syracuse Strong, it’s not the only reason they do this.
“Our vision is to become a launching pad for players and coaches alike to get opportunities to play or coach at higher levels,” Bey said. “Particularly, AFL-1, the CFL or the NFL. We want the Syracuse Strong to become a place where agents and scouts go to seek talent.”