By Keith McShea
One win to reach the final four. Two wins to The Ralph. Three wins to a sectional title. Win three more and you're a state champion.
It all starts this weekend with 22 opening-round games in the Section VI football postseason, which concludes Nov. 2-3 at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
In Class AA and A there are clear favorites to meet at The Ralph, but there are certainly potential potholes. In Class B, Alden deserves to be considered ahead of the pack due to its season-long No. 1 small school ranking and its two straight championships. There's a similar story in Class D with longtime power Maple Grove, the state's top-ranked team in that classification. Class C should be topsy-turvy – just like its season has been.
Class AA
Favorites for The Ralph: Jamestown and Orchard Park have been ranked ahead of the rest of AA all season and could be headed for a title showdown for the second straight year. Both finished 4-1 in AA South, with Jamestown earning the top seed since it won the teams' regular season matchup, 35-28, at home in Week Six.
Sleeper: Frontier isn't in the large school top 10 and it opens on the road, so it qualifies as a sleeper. But the team has been on my ballot the last few weeks and it's the only team to take down Jamestown (35-28 in Week Five). If the Falcons win at Niagara Falls, they'll very likely head down to Jamestown to try and beat the Red Raiders again.
High-quality quarterfinal: Clarence at Lockport, with the winner likely heading to OP. The strength of the AA South has a tendency to show itself at this time of year as the divisions cross over – last season fourth-place AA South team Lancaster took AA North champion Kenmore West to overtime in their quarterfinal.
Clarence lost standout senior quarterback Mark Armstrong in the third week of the season but won three straight before giving visiting Jamestown a stern test in the regular season finale. The Red Devils, who have gotten excellent all-around play from junior WR/DB Eumare Williams, had a 21-7 lead before Jamestown came back for a 28-21 victory.
Lockport hosted Orchard Park in Week One, challenging the Quakers before falling, 42-21. The Lions scheduled St. Joe's in a superb nonleague game and went back-and-forth with the Marauders before losing, 30-25. In both games, the Lions' scheduling was for a game like Saturday afternoon's.
“We really believe that the way to improve your program is by trying to play the best competition that's out there,” said Lockport coach Greg Bronson. “I think it's a smart idea. We haven't won a first round playoff game in a couple of years. We've been searching for a way to get us out of Week Eight.”
Class A
Favorites for The Ralph: Similarly to AA, there are two teams considered above the rest of the A pack in the large school poll: a very familiar face in undefeated North champion Sweet Home and a undefeated South champion West Seneca East, a fresh face which hasn't won a sectional title since 1981.
Many are eager to find out how they will do against better competition. That starts this weekend as always-stingy Starpoint (3-4) will be a tough out for the Trojans on Friday night; Williamsville East (4-3) and standout junior back Jaleel Battle will try to knock off their Amherst rival Saturday afternoon at Sweet Home. It will be tough: The Panthers' win streak against Western New York competition is at 57, and it is seeking its sixth straight Section VI championship.
Sleeper: Williamsville South (4-3) lost to Sweet Home in last year's title game, struggled this season and is without standout senior quarterback Trent Ferguson, who broke his collarbone. Against a McKinley team with perhaps the most dangerous collection of offensive weapons in this class (led by WR Stephon Johnson, RB Reyzon Jordan, QB Jamar Rutledge), the Billies are a certain underdog, but they have won too many games over the past few years for this to be an easy game for the Macks (5-2).
High-quality quarterfinal: Grand Island (6-1) only picked up its first loss this past week, and it wasn't by much (22-16 to McKinley). The Vikings' trip to Iroquois (6-1) pairs two programs with great traditions and an eventful history at a site, Milt Latimer Field, which is a great place to watch a game.
Class B
Favorites for The Ralph: B East champion Alden (7-0) is most certainly one. But who will meet them there? No. 4 small school and B West champion Cheektowaga (7-0) is the clear choice on paper, but the Warriors played without outstanding two-way senior Marquel Jackson in their season finale; if he's out, the door could be open for someone.
Sleeper: Sixth-seeded Springville is under .500 (3-4), but it has won three straight since starting 0-4, and its losses are by a combined 19 points, including losing to Burgard at the horn on a Hail Mary. The Griffins head to B South champion Eden (6-1) Saturday at 2; Eden won, 19-13, in Week Two.
High-quality quarterfinal: The best matchup of the first round in any class has No. 2 small school Depew (6-1) on the road to meet No. 6 Burgard (6-1) at All High Stadium Friday at 7. The matchup results from Class B's seeding system, which combines three divisions; both teams finished second in their division, but Burgard got the edge on tiebreakers.
Class C
Favorites for The Ralph: By virtue of their divisional championships, North champ JFK (6-1) and South winner Salamanca (6-1) earn these titles, but not by much. Incredibly balanced divisions have led to Cleveland Hill (5-2), ranked 10th in the small school poll, paying a visit to Salamanca. Cleve Hill lost out in a battle for the top seed only — and fell all the way to fourth — when JFK scored on a two-point conversion in the final minute to win the North title Saturday, 29-28.
JFK hosts Cassadaga Valley (3-4), which was a clear fourth in the South, a spot it earned with a victory over perennial power Southwestern, which astonishingly left the Trojans out of the playoffs.
Sleeper: In this class, everyone could be a sleeper and a favorite at the same time. Cleveland Hill is a No. 4 seed but certainly no sleeper. Look out for the winner of Westfield/Brocton (4-3) at Wilson (5-2). The Lakemen lost to Cleve Hill and JFK by a combined eight points and is coming off a bye after East Aurora forfeited a season-ending nonleaguer. Westfield/Brocton gave Salamanca a great game last week, only losing, 7-6.
High-quality quarterfinal: Fredonia (5-2) travels to Allegany-Limestone (5-2) in a rematch of the only crossover game between the divisions. How tight is Class C? Fredonia won that game, 13-12.
Class D
Favorites for The Ralph: You will have heard this before — No. 5 small school Maple Grove (7-0) and Randolph (5-2). I looked up how often one of them played in the final and I kept going back … and back … and back. One of these Class D powers have made it to The Ralph for 19 straight years, dating back to 1992, so long ago that teams were divided by Divisions (1 through 10) rather than classes.
Maple Grove (7-0) has been ranked first in Class D for much of the season and it has been a mainstay in the top 10 of The News small school poll. Randolph lost to Frewsburg in Week One and Maple Grove (27-14) in Week Three, but since has put up four very Randolph-looking routs.
Sleeper: With the pedigree of the top two, a No. 3 seed qualifies as a sleeper, especially when it started 1-3. Silver Creek (4-3) had big wins the past two weeks over Frewsburg (34-12) – which it hosts Friday – and Chautauqua Lake (34-0). If the seedings hold, they'd play Randolph in the semifinals; Randolph only beat th Black Knights by a 13-12 score in Week Two.
High-quality quarterfinal: In the 4-5 pairing, Portville (4-3) heads to Chautauqua Lake (4-3), which beat the Panthers at home in Week Two by a 16-12 score.
Class DD
For the second straight year, Class DD has a four-team bracket in which the winner will not advance to the state playoffs. The top three seeds all tied at 5-1 — the valuable top spot went to Ellicottville (5-2), which hosts Panama (2-5).
That means that Sherman/Ripley (6-1), which beat Clymer, 32-0, back in Week One, will host the Pirates (6-1) in a battle of schools tucked in the southwest toe of the state. However, Clymer might actually be the favorite in this bracket, having played very well since that opening loss, winning six straight including a win over Class C playoff team Cassadaga Valley last week. The Pirates also played at The Ralph last year, losing to Chautauqua Lake. This weekend's semifinal winners will have a week off before playing for the title at The Ralph.