By Keith McShea
As a reporter, I'm not supposed to play favorites. But I can say this: I cannot wait for Friday night's Section VI Class A championship at Ralph Wilson Stadium, and I know I'm not alone.
It is a classic confrontation, a meeting of two of the best kind of high school stories.
On one sideline, there is a coaching staff that is very used to operating from the turf of the home of the Buffalo Bills, a program that has defined excellence year after year, despite player turnover and all sorts of variables.
Each season, it is one of the few programs that elevates itself above the conventional wisdom that high school athletics go in cycles, that there will be up years and down years.
On the opposite sideline, another great storyline. The program that has struggled through the years, where expectations from outsiders naturally remained low.
That is, until, one group helps it surge forward, shake off the past, and break through to the point where it takes the entire school and its community on a memorable, savory ride.
Sweet Home versus West Seneca East – 9-0 versus 9-0. It is the only championship game, among six this weekend, in which two undefeated teams will meet.
“I'm glad it ended up to be the two of us,” said Sweet Home coach John Faller, whose team is ranked second in The News large school poll. “9-0 and 9-0, that's what the playoffs should be when you're playing for a championship.”
Sweet Home has won five straight Section VI championships. It has been to The Ralph eight straight times. It has won 59 straight games against Western New York competition.
West Seneca East hasn't been to The Ralph since 1987.
“It still hasn't hit me yet,” said senior Scott Ackerman of West Seneca East, ranked fifth among large schools. “This whole experience, it's not going to hit me until after the season. This season we've been looking forward to playing Sweet Home here. I feel like we match up good with them, and it'll be a great game.”
Sweet Home, champions of Class A North, and West Seneca East, champions of Class A South, met in last year's postseason. Sweet Home won, 20-0, on their way to another title and ensuing fifth straight trip to the Far West Regionals.
That game was the beginning of a new story for West Seneca East, which had lost at least three games a year going back to 1983.
This year, the Trojans have been driven by a senior class led by three three-year varsity players: Ackerman, quarterback/defensive back Andy Smigiera and fullback/linebacker Ryan Johnson. Smigiera is one of the most dynamic players in Western New York, with speed that makes him one of the section's top sprinters come track season, and with an all-around game that includes regular touchbacks on kickoffs. Johnson delivers hard hits on both sides of the ball.
Ackerman is a standout runner, receiver and linebacker who has scored a school-record 21 touchdowns this season to break the school record of career TDs (38). If the name sounds familiar, that's because his father, Scott Sr., was a standout for the Trojans on their last title team in 1981.
“I've been hearing it since I've been little,” Ackerman said of his dad. “I always watched his game tape. He always brags about how he scored three touchdowns in the championship game. I'm trying to be better than him, and it's sweet to come out here and be like him.”
All season coach Jim Maurino has talked about the senior trio's dedication and leadership, from the end of last season through the summer to this year, about how they've led the way for a team that has had many contributors throughout the season.
The Trojans were solid every week in the regular season, which closed with a win over West Seneca West in their rivalry game. The next two weeks provided tough tests, including a one-point win over Starpoint in which West Seneca East came back from a two-touchdown deficit, then went for two in the final minutes after a touchdown brought it to within one. Last week, it broke open a hard fought, muddy game with Williamsville South with a strong fourth quarter.
“It gives us a ton [of confidence],” Maurino said of those last two weeks. “They kind of needed a game like that, almost as a wake-up call, just to get through that adversity. The way we came through it was very special to me. There was no finger-pointing. There was no getting out of control, they just kind of hunkered down.”
For Sweet Home, there have hardly been any such struggles – as has been the case for most of its last six regular seasons. It's a sign of a program that continually reloads under one of Western New York's best coaching staffs.
“I think basically it's the program itself,” Faller said of what is behind the continued success. “We've found a system that fits the kids at Sweet Home. The coaching staff is there to work on the same page every year. It's just a matter of plugging in new kids in new positions. I think the tradition helps us. Our JV team was undefeated again this year. It just kind of fits, and when you've got a good thing going, then you don't change it.”
That standard is met year after year by each new crew of players. For Faller, there is no talk of a 59-game win streak against Western New York teams. When asked how long the streak is, he answers only with the amount of wins the team has this season. Ask him today, and he'll tell you Sweet Home's win streak is nine.
“We're honored to keep the streak going,” said senior lineman Billy Attea. “I understand where coach is coming from. We want to focus on this year. It doesn't matter what teams did before us. We just want to continue to win.”
This year's Sweet Home team is typically powerful in all phases, although many new faces have stepped up. Senior quarterback Mike Torrillo stepped into his first year in the role as composed as a two- or three-year starter. The Panthers have sophomore impact players like running back Jordan Evert, linebacker/receiver Brad Zaffram and running back/linebacker Brandon Smiley. Most of its returning players are on its line.
Both teams sure appeared at ease during Section VI media day at The Ralph on Wednesday. Sweet Home players showed off postseason blonde dye jobs that were quite a bit brighter than the “old gold” on their uniforms. West Seneca East called something of a reverse play and did some video interviewing of some media members with their smartphones.
Who's going to win? I loathe predicting games, waiting until kickoff on our live blogs until I do so. Which storyline will continue into the regional round next week? I definitely need a few days to think about it. I just can't wait to watch it.
Around the halls
• Go to buffalonews.com for video interviews with coaches and players from all Section VI finalists.
• The Class A championship will be the Intense Milks Game of the Week on WXRL (1300 AM). The broadcast is available online – and through mobile devices – via links at wxrl.com. All of the championship games will be televised on tape-delay by Time Warner Cable SportsChannel.
• Football Friday will feature more coverage of the Section VI championships, including stories on Springville and the Class AA final. Gameday capsules will be printed in Friday's and Saturday's papers.
• There will be a live chat at 9:45 tonight at the Prep Talk blog.