By CRAIG HARVEY
OBSERVER Sports Editor
ORCHARD PARK – The Cleveland Hill Golden Eagles were able to do something no other team has done all season Saturday in the Section 6 Class C championship game at Ralph Wilson Stadium as they grounded the high-powered Fredonia Hillbillies.
Due to costly turnovers and a stingy Cleveland Hill defense, the Fredonia Hillbillies once again watched the Golden Eagles celebrate a Section 6 title in a 22-13 defeat.
“The name of the game is who can take advantage of turnovers and who makes the most turnovers,” Fredonia coach Mike Marshall said. “At one time I looked up at the scoreboard and we had three turnovers to their one. You just can’t do it in a championship game and expect to win.”
Cleveland Hill opened the scoring in the first quarter on its opening drive. After forcing Fredonia to go three and out on its first possession, the Golden Eagles went on a 12-play, 63-yard drive capped by a 2-yard run to the end zone by Brandon Thomas. The key play on the drive was a 15-yard pass play from Aaron Jackson to Dan Farinacci on 4th and 15 which gave Cleveland Hill a first down at Fredonia’s 12-yard line.
“That was huge,” Marshall said of the fourth-down play. “The confidence went out of the boys after that for a while.”
The Golden Eagles scored on the two-point conversion on a double-reversal pass from Aaron Phillips to Jared Watkins.
“We work on that a lot,” Cleveland Hill coach Glen Graham said. “It’s been about five years since we tried an extra point. We would rather put in a few wrinkles and try things there.”
The Hillbillies were ineffective in the opening quarter as it was unable to generate any offense. Fredonia didn’t manage a first down until midway through the second quarter.
“We aren’t used to that, but we felt we could keep pounding at them,” Marshall said. “Again, with the three and outs, the reason was because of mistakes we made on offense. We didn’t make our blocks and didn’t hit the holes fast enough. They came out with guns loaded and their defense showed they are the best in the league.”
The Hillbillies caught their first break in the second half as Dakota Gardner forced a fumble. It looked as if Fredonia was going to let the opportunity go to waste though as they were forced with a 4th and 4 at Cleveland Hill’s 37-yard line. Then, Matt McCarthy took the handoff up the middle and found the back of the end zone.
“The offensive line told me they felt they could run inside,” Marshall said of the play call. “All year long I have been listening to the line and calling the plays they wanted to call and let them do the work.”
Marshall elected to go for the field goal instead of trying a two-point conversion as Nick Johnston kicked the extra point to trail 8-7.
“I didn’t think it would be an 8-7 game the rest of the way,” Marshall said about going for an extra point. “I honestly believed we were going to score again. You take that chance.”
With seven seconds left before halftime, Fredonia forced a punt and started at its own 12-yard line. Instead of running out the clock, Weston Ley ran a quarterback keeper and fumbled the ball, which Cleveland Hill recovered. Fortunately for Fredonia, the Golden Eagles had two incomplete passes to end the half and headed into halftime with an 8-7 lead.
On Cleveland Hill’s opening drive of the third quarter, Fredonia gave up a first down before forcing a punt. On the punt, Weston Ley was unable to handle the ball and the Golden Eagles recovered at the 10-yard line.
“If you’re going to be successful in anything, you have to take chances,” Marshall said. “Weston definitely is a person who can pop it open. He took the chance and it ended up being a fumble and they got on it. Let the boys make their own decisions and I think that’s how we have been so successful. You have to take chances if you want to be the best.”
From there, it only took the Golden Eagles three plays to find the end zone as Brandon Thomas scored from 4 yards out. Jackson found Jared Watkins in the end zone for the two-point conversion and a 16-7 lead.
Later in the quarter, Fredonia was pinned up at its own 5-yard line and McCarthy fumbled the ball on the first play from scrimmage, giving Cleveland Hill the ball at Fredonia’s 12-yard line. Once again, Cleveland Hill turned Fredonia’s turnovers into points as Thomas scored four plays later on a 1-yard plunge on the second play of the fourth quarter for a 22-7 advantage.
“You have to be able to generate turnovers when you’re going against an offense like Fredonia,” Graham said. “They are prolific. After the performance Fredonia had last weekend (scoring 72 points), we knew it was going to be a challenge and our defense stepped up.”
With 3:10 left, the Hillbillies got on the board again as Ley scrambled to the left and found John Piper, who was able to run it into the end zone for a 52-yard score. The two-point conversion failed as the scoreboard read 22-13.
From there, the Golden Eagles were able to run out the clock for the victory.
McCarthy finished with 104 yards on 19 carries while Ley threw for 112 yards on 9-of-13 passing. He also ran for 31 yards on 12 carries. Nick Johnston had 30 yards receiving.
“What they were doing was stopping McCarthy,” Marshall said. “Their team speed is fantastic on the outside and the inside. We couldn’t get too many people into position to do anything.”
Defensively, Dakota Gardner led the way with 13 tackles while Jake Rinus had 12 tackles and 1.5 sacks. Steve Mignoli and Tyler DiRusso each had 11 tackles in defeat.
“Basically, for my first year coaching, I told them it’s been a dream come true coaching those boys and doing what I did,” Marshall said. “When we first walked onto the field, being my first year as coach, I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. I told them being able to coach them through a season like we had has made my life richer. These boys have played their heart out for me.”
It was the final game for seniors Cody Smith, Ley, Nick Johnston, Jake Lilly, Dylan Meyer, Jin Kim, Zack Odebralski, Brett Seekings and Dustin Wickmark.
“I had some seniors who weren’t even going to come out for football this year,” Marshall said. “It would have been a different season if they weren’t here. I can’t think of one of them who wont be successful after high school. They work hard and have good heads on their shoulders.”