In what was a clash of the titans of upstate New York football, Orchard Park and Aquinas clashed, crashed and collided, play after play, but it was OP that got the last big hit.
Mitch Wilson’s 24-yard run on a fourth-and-1 play with 3:19 to go enabled the Quakers to beat the Little Irish, 14-7, in the Class AA Far West Regionals before an estimated 2,500 at All High Stadium.
“It’s so much fun to win games like this because it was a hard battle,” said Wilson, a senior. “We’re a great football team, they’re a great football team and when two football teams like that come together it’s a super-fun game.”
OP’s victory also gave Section VI four wins out of the five regional games this weekend, matching its best regional performance (2008 and 2009).
Orchard Park (10-1) will face Christian Brothers Academy (11-0) of Syracuse in the state semifinals at 6 p.m. next Saturday at Rochester’s Sahlen’s Stadium. CBA, the Section III champion, beat Section IV winner Binghamton, 31-7, in Saturday’s Central Regional.
It was the first time that defending Class AA state champion Orchard Park, which also won a state title in 2008, faced an Aquinas team that has won five state championships in the last 15 years. The Rochester private school won those titles in Class A before this year’s elevation to Class AA.
“They’re an awesome team,” coach Gene Tundo said of Aquinas. “We played great defense and our offense made some big plays to drive down the field and score that last touchdown. It was a tremendous effort by both teams. We’ve heard a lot about them, and I know why they’ve been so good. They were big, strong kids and very athletic.”
Both teams’ rushing attack and defenses spent the entire game bashing into each other at the line, putting a premium on each yard. OP contained Aquinas senior standout running back Billy Lombardi, who ran 21 times for 76 yards, while Aquinas limited Wilson to 80 yards on 20 carries one week after he rushed for 276 of OP’s Section VI championship-record 476 yards in a 35-20 win over Jamestown.
“I think defensively we couldn’t have played any better,” Tundo said. “We had good coverage, we had good pressure. I just think it was a great football game.”
Orchard Park had dominated the first half in every statistic but the scoreboard. The Quakers owned total yards (179-9), plays (43-11), first downs (14-2) and time of possession (18:25-5:34) but could not provide a finishing touch on long, time-consuming drives.
OP had a 7-0 halftime lead thanks to Holmes’ 19-yard run with 1:09 left in the half. Holmes’ running (16 carries for 71 yards) became a key weapon against a Little Irish defense that limited Wilson to 28 yards on 12 carries in the first half.
Defenses dominated a scoreless third quarter before Aquinas got a big special teams play on the first play of the fourth to gain some major momentum. Senior Ishmael Cox returned a punt 66 yards to the 3, where Lombardi ran in to tie the game at 7-7 with 11:32 left.
OP punted and Aquinas was driving again when the momentum swung back. The Little Irish had reached the OP 31, but a backwards pass to the right side by freshman quarterback Jake Zembiec missed its target and hit the turf for a fumble. OP senior defensive back Jett Modkins covered the live ball to give the Quakers possession at the Aquinas 42 with 6:30 to play.
The Quakers took advantage of the turnover as runs by Holmes (twice) and Wilson (three times) led OP to the Aquinas 24, where the Quakers faced a fourth-and-1. As bodies collided at the line, Wilson went to the left, got first-down yardage as he reached the edge, then kept himself inbounds and saw an empty sideline ahead of him.
“The coach told me they’re usually pushing guys inside, so I needed to go outside,” said Wilson. “I was wrapped up a little bit so I stiff-armed him off me, tip-toed the sideline and tried to make it in. I was like, ‘There’s no one here -- let’s run as fast as we can and see if we can make it.’ It was awesome.”
Aquinas drove to the OP 25 as it attempted to answer. After a spike to stop the clock with just under a minute to go, OP sophomore Jacob Dogal made a key stop after a pass to junior Alonzo Turney to bring up third and 7 and force Aquinas to take its final timeout with 48.2 left.
After an incompletion, Zembiec threw for the end zone. Senior Austin Goltz made sure that no one could catch it by knocking the ball down to clinch the OP win.