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Friday, Nov. 29, 2013: Looking ahead to the NYSPHSAA football finals

   Leading off today: Keith McShea of The Buffalo News pretty much summed it up when he observed that just about anybody could have looked at the football landscape on Labor Day weekend and said Randolph had a pretty good chance of playing in the Carrier Dome on Thanksgiving weekend.

   On the other hand, Williamsville North wasn't high on anyone's "duh" list, and the situation certainly didn't improve after losses by 14-12 to Buffalo McKinley and 32-6 to Williamsville South to start the year.

   But throw out a regular-season loss to Grand Island (avenged in the postseason) and Williamsville North has run the table since, landing a spot in the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class A final vs. Queensbury.

   Queensbury ran the table in Section 2 this year, twice beating Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake -- reason enough to take any team seriously -- and rates as the favorite Friday afternoon. But having seen Williamsville North, which also owns a win over Sweet Home, beat Eastridge by rallying in the final minute and then dominate Union-Endicott early, there's no way I'm ruling the Spartans out. The offense features a third-year starting QB in Ryan Majewski (105-for-237 for 1,469 yards and 17 touchdowns) and senior running back Derek Isler (1,131 yards), an indication of their balance.

   In fact, the Class A final could very well turn out to be the highlight of the weekend. Williamsville North, which has made an impression on defense throughout the postseason in large part because of its effectiveness on the line, faces its most imposing challenge of the season. Queensbury's double-wing offense has churned out 4,031 yards and 58 touchdowns in 12 games.

   A few notes on the weekend schedule:

   Class AA, Aquinas vs. Monroe-Woodbury: Kevin Devaney Jr. of MSG Varsity correctly notes Aquinas wins if it controls the line of scrimmage on offense, because quality defensive line play has been an M-W hallmark this fall.

   M-W quarterback Kevin Carr gets the job done with his legs and Aquinas' Jake Zembiec does it through the air, but neither is one-dimensional and it's likely both will end the day with impressive stats. Aquinas, which has a long string of all-state running backs, still pounds the ball but has reshaped its offense to feature Zembiec (119-for-203 for 1,721 yards, 23 TDS, six interceptions).

   Where Zembiec may have the edge though is that he doesn't have to throw against the Aquinas secondary. The Little Irish have several interchangeable parts, including backs they routinely trust handling receivers 1-on-1; if Aquinas deems the air game to be sufficiently locked down, M-W is going to be trying to run the ball against eight men in the box -- and that won't work vs. Aquinas.

   Class A, Williamsville North vs. Queensbury: Queensbury has been running its double-wing offense since coach John Irion took over in 1997, and 17 different backs have carried at least once this fall. The key is sophomore Brett Rodriguez with 107 carries for 1,111 yards and 15 touchdowns.

   The problem with defending against that offense it two-fold: (1) Opponents don't see it very often and can't replicate it very well in practice; (2) Successful double-wing teams tend to get very good offensive line play, which goes a long way toward winning Week 13 games by wearing down defenses in the homestretch.

   Queensbury reached NYSPHSAA finals in 1997 and 1998, losing to Vestal and Aquinas, respectively.

   Class B, Maine-Endwell vs. Schalmont: Schalmont possesses wins by scores of 51-0 over Glens Falls, 61-0 vs. Johnstown, 54-0 vs. Hudson Falls and 53-0 vs. Green Tech -- not to mention a combined 180-13 mark in its last three playoff games. The defense has allowed just 33 points for the season.

   Does that amount to a hill of beans against Maine-Endwell, winner of 37 straight games and NYSPHSAA championships in 2011 and 2012? I would have been tempted to say no until the 66-0 demolition (60-0 at halftime) of Marlboro in the semifinals last weekend.

   Sunday's game is still M-E's to lose, but Schalmont has the potential to apply enough pressure to make it uncomfortable, especially if the defense loses track of Devon Willis. Willis was a first-team all-state running back as a junior but missed the first month of this season with an injury. He's piled up 1,000 yards and 18 TDs since returning to the lineup. With Willis, Trevon Perez-Tucker and Kyle Strube all capable of breaking long runs and state wrestling championship contender Nick Gallo playing QB, Schalmont has more weapons than anyone M-E has faced this season.


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   Class C, Rye Neck vs. Chenango Forks: Even Schalmont's dismantling of Marlboro was not as startling as Rye Neck's 14-0 win over Hoosick Falls last weekend. Though there were indications the defending champs were starting to falter and might be vulnerable, Rye Neck's allowing just 205 yards was a performance that rated above and beyond the best expectations.

   If you discount a shootout with Woodlands, Rye Neck allows just 2.9 points a game and has posted six shutouts, led by linebacker Jakob Calvani, which is one reason this game may very well be the lowest-scoring contest of the weekend.

   Chenango Forks is a running team, averaging 309.8 yards on the ground and just 61.7 through the air -- though J.C. Sweeney has thrown for 16 TDs. If Isaiah Zimmer (1,879 yards) is gaining chunks of yardage up the middle, then Forks keeps moving the chains and eats up time of possession.

   Forks has won 11 sectional titles in the past 13 years but is making its first state final appearance since 2007. This may be the swan song: Merger discussions between Chenango Forks and Chenango Valley have been in progress for two years and a pair of upcoming votes could lead to a district consolidation.

   Class D, Randolph vs. Chester: First-year Randolph coach Brent Brown is bringing a monster he helped create in 23 years as an assistant to the Carrier Dome, where the Cardinals are 3-0 in state finals -- they beat Cambridge 35-6 in 2005, Moriah 41-0 in 2009 and Tuckahoe 28-7 last season.

   It's been suggested Randolph resembles a large Class C program (with Class B size on the lines), and there's something to be said for that assessment: In the semifinals, they posted a 35-6 win over the Tioga squad that beat state "C" finalist Chenango Forks in September.

   Unlike several past seasons, Randolph will throw the ball for reasons other than just boredom (Mitch Maycock is 47-for-97 for 911 yards and 14 TDs -- including six in the past three games), but the ground game is still the bread and butter, led by 5-foot-9 Chris Doubek (212 carries, 2,263 yards, 31 TDs) and RB/WR Lucas Brown 77 carries, 632, 7 TDs), who both also excel on defense.

   Doubek is 184 yards shy of the Section 6 single-season rushing mark set by Southwestern's Dustin Bowser in 2003.

   Randolph's 23-point win over Maple Grove in the Section 6 final was its closest win of the year, but Chester has an impressive resume as well, led by junior quarterback Vinny Aloi, who set a Section 9 record and tied the NYSPHSAA mark by throwing seven touchdowns last week.

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   It's that passing game that sets up a classic showdown. Randolph's first two opponents in the state tourney (Red Jacket and Tioga) went a combined 0-for-16 through the air. There's no way Chester takes a bagel, too, but the question becomes how much damage the passing game can do to open up possibilities on the ground. Aloi (1,129 passing yards) had only 13 TD passes before last week, so it's still speedy 1,200-yard rusher Lawrence Young (17 TDs) who matters most.

   Chester's only loss was its season-opener, 33-28 to James I. O'Neill, an above-average Class C program. The Hambletonians were state finalists in 2011 and returned their 2012 roster virtually intact this fall.

   Watch more: Here are a few links to preview videos I've come across this week while prepping for championship weekend:

  • MSG Varsity on Monroe-Woodbury
  • Times Herald-Record on Monroe-Woodbury
  • Buffalo News on Williamsville North, Randolph
  • MSG Varsity on Rye Neck
  • Times Herald-Record on Chester

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