Grand expectations: New coach, Wolves ready to roar

Grand Street quarterback Cristian Pena has improved from his sophomore year and could lead the Wolves to a surprise season.

Mike Lightfoot was excited to start his seventh season as an assistant coach at Grand Street Campus a few months ago when something completely unexpected happened. Head coach Ed Gazzillo, who started the program in 1999, had to step down after accepting an assistant principal job at a nearby elementary school.

With the Wolves’ architect out, his right-hand man stepped to the forefront.

“It was a really exciting opportunity,” said Lightfoot, who was Gazzillo’s defensive coordinator. “It caught me by surprise. You’re never really ready for anything. You just have to rise to the occasion. It’s not something I was really ready for, but I thought to myself when was I gonna be ready?”

Lightfoot has used that example with his players and he thinks this is the year Grand Street Campus could rise to the occasion. With a plethora of talented players back, the first-year coach believes his Wolves could surprise the city.

“Two years ago was our first as a 5 and we took our lumps,” Lightfoot said. “Last year we made that next step. The kids got it in their heads right now that they can play with anyone in the city. I believe it myself. I’m the one pounding it into their heads.”

Grand Street’s versatile offensive attack will start with junior quarterback Cristian Pena, who started last year as a sophomore. He had made great strides in the offseason, Lightfoot said, and has rounded into a complete signal-caller, not just an athletic runner.

“He’s just the full package — running, throwing,” the coach said. “He’s basically a running back with a cannon for an arm. He’s very accurate and he’s learning the game more. He’s making more experienced decisions and learning the offense. … He’s just an athlete. He just finds a way to make something work.”

It sounds like Pena will have plenty of help, too. Brandon Shade, Malcolm James and David Filpo are all expected to get touches at running back and are coming off a strong training camp. At receiver, Therno Diallo and Ishmaiah Height (aptly named) both stand 6-foot-2 with speed and good hands. Twin brothers Isaac and Isaiah Clarke will round out the receiving corps.

“When things are tough, we can always put the ball up and know that no matter where it is one of those two can go up and get it,” Lightfoot said of Diallo and Height.

The line could be just as impressive, led by center Covorosier Mitchell (5-6, 225) and guard Marlon Palacios (5-10, 250). The rest isn’t set in stone, but Davean Webb and Fabrice Armstrong will likely see time. Four other guys are competing for the fifth and final spot.

On defense, the linemen will play both ways and the linebacking corps of Diallo, Shade and James will be fast, athletic and ready to pack a punch. Pena could also see time there, but only in emergencies. James has stood out in the preseason.

“He’s a physical, fast and instinctive player,” Lightfoot said. “He basically knows what’s gonna happen before it does.”

Height and Randy Ollivierre will headline the secondary. Lightfoot praised the job defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, formerly of Long Beach, Bishop Ford and Fort Hamilton, has done thus far. The unit’s – and entire team’s – depth has been apparent.

“Sometimes you have trouble seeing which team is the 1s and which team is the 2s,” Lightfoot said.

The coach isn’t sure what kind of personality Grand Street will take on this year — except it will be a winning one.

“We can really do anything,” Lightfoot said. “Our receivers are amazing. We have three running backs that could start for about any team in the city. We have four or five offensive linemen that can bench-press 300 pounds.”

Late last season, Lightfoot said he and Gazzillo noticed the team took an upward turn, the sophomores and juniors maturing before their eyes. Grand Street beat Flushing in Week 9 and snuck into the playoffs with a 4-5 record. Lightfoot doesn’t want people to think he’s cocky, but he believes the Wolves are ready to hit their peak. And that could mean big things.

“All we need to do is play to the best of our abilities,” he said. … “Right now the kids want to win a championship. By no means do I think that’s out of reach for us.”

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