It was late in the fourth quarter of last Friday night’s Class A Far West Regional, and things did not look good for the Sweet Home football team. In my live blog, the situation was simply:
10:15 p.m. Eastridge 21, Sweet Home 14. 2:16 left. Sweet Home takes over on its 13.
What happened next will be remembered for a long time: by Western New York football fans, by the Sweet Home team, coaches and students, by the Torrillo family.
Take a step back and you could say that the drive started a long time ago, one that covered much more territory than 87 yards. It may have started when now-senior quarterback Michael Torrillo was in middle school. As soon as his own season was finished, he would hang around varsity practice, where father Michael Sr. has been an assistant coach for about the last decade.
The younger Torrillo would be a ballboy during games, including one muddy home victory that sticks out to him to this day. He ran balls in and out to quarterback Casey Kacz, who would help lead the 2008 Panthers to the team’s first state championship.
“They were in the ‘Big Bird’ [the nickname for the Panthers’ double-wing formation] the whole time, and there were a lot of fumbles,” said Torrillo, whose duties had him drying the ball off and running it into Kacz. “At the end of the game, Casey goes, ‘You were the MVP,’ that he couldn’t have done it without me, that it would have been a lot worse.
“That was my first real experience — it made me feel like part of the team. And back in middle school, that was special.”
10:16 p.m. Shotgun Torrillo. Hits Brad Zaffram on left side, he steps out of bounds. 2:11 left. Second and 1.
10:16 p.m. Torrillo pressured, throws right, incomplete. Third and 1. 2:07 left. At Sweet Home 22.
Torrillo waited until his senior year to get his turn to quarterback the Panthers. He’d been working at it ever since he watched quarterbacks like Kacz and Pat McMahon, who led the 2009 state title team.
“It was just seeing how Casey and Pat conducted themselves,” said Torrillo. “In [Friday’s game], I threw an interception. They had just scored [Eastridge had a 21-7 lead in the third quarter], and they had the momentum after I threw that pick. But I knew we were going to have time to come back. I needed to keep these guys up. If my head goes down, their heads will go down. I learned that from Casey and Pat, about their character and how players basically looked up to them.”
10:17 p.m. Torrillo shotgun. Runs to middle, then pitches wide right to Jordan Evert. First down and a lot more. 2:00 left. At Sweet Home 39. Clock running.
10:17 p.m. Torrillo shotgun. Hits Zaffram on right sideline, steps out of bounds. First down at the Sweet Home 49. 1:40 left.
“With the team that we have, we practice [the two-minute drill] all the time, so we felt comfortable with it,” Torrillo Sr. said of the drive, which he watched his son lead from the sidelines. “There are really smart kids on this team. Three times, kids got out of bounds. I take pride in my job and I’m happy for the whole team, but this one was special. I’ve watched [Mike] look up to Casey and Pat and [current University at Buffalo player] Jordan Johnson. He’s seen this tradition and he’s lived it.”
10:18 p.m. Shotgun Torrillo. Hits Carter Mann on right side. He keeps going, couple of cutbacks, BIG gain. Hello. 1:28 left. First down at 30 of Eastridge.
“Mann was in motion, he went across the field, and no one stayed with him,” said Torrillo Jr. “I’m waiting, he gets open, I hit him, and I’m like, ‘Get out of bounds.’ He cuts back and I’m like, ‘What’s he doing?’ But then he made a couple guys miss, and he got 15 more yards out of it. … After that, we mixed in some runs, and we had them on their heels.”
10:19 p.m. Pitch left to Kahlil Humphrey. Hello. First down to Eastridge 14. Timeout, Eastridge with 1:15 left. Whoaaaaaa.
“I’m really proud of his composure,” said Torrillo Sr. “It really impressed me how well he ran the ball [eight times for 62 yards]. That’s another side of him. I knew he had it in him, but he hasn’t been called too much to run.”
10:20 p.m. Torrillo runs to the left. Out of bounds near the 5. 1:10 left. Second and 1.
10:21 p.m. Pitch right to Evert, fumble, covered. Whoa. Sweet Home timeout. 1:02 left. Third and 4 at the 8.
10:22 p.m. Sweet Home spread out. Torrillo shotgun. He keeps it to the right side, dives but he is ruled not in the end zone. First down at the 2. 53.7 seconds left. First and goal.
“Mike has known all the kids that have come before him,” said Faller. “This was his chance to put a drive together, actually two drives — there was the one that got us to 14 [in which Sweet Home drove from its 25, with Torrillo completing a fourth-down conversion pass], then the one that tied it up. Your quarterback has to make the right decisions out there. Under pressure, he has to execute.
“We practice our two-minute offense quite a bit. They don’t panic, we just call our plays, and they move the ball as best they can. They did that. The thing I’m most proud of, is the short passes and making the right decisions. Mike did a great job with that.”
10:23 p.m. Timeout Eastridge as Sweet Home shows up in its Big Bird double-wing for the first time all game. 53.7 left.
10:24 p.m. Sweet Home out of the timeout, back in Big Bird. Evert TOUCHDOWN from 2 yards. Goodness. 49.8 left. 21-20. Timeout before extra-point kick. Kick is good by Sean Huebert. 21-21.
“Everyone knows their part, their responsibility, and if 1/11th of it breaks down, everything breaks down,” said Faller. “We had to make a stop on their fake field goal [to get the ball back for the final drive]. Sean Huebert made all those extra points. Every snap was good. The plays Zaffram and Mann made, it just goes on and on. The defense stops them in four plays in overtime.
“A lot of things went into that game, and any coach will tell you, all the little pieces come together. It says a lot about those young kids, and their ability to play together. We’re very proud of them. They showed us more than just winning the game, they showed us the makeup of the kids that are out there.”
With the comeback complete, the game went to overtime and Sweet Home had the ball first. After an initial first down, Sweet Home had a penalty and was hit for a loss, eventually resulting in a fourth-and-goal from the 19.
The play call was one that Faller said he hasn’t called many times since it worked against Grand Island in a playoff game in 2002. His quarterback knew it because he has memorized all the plays — no wristband cheat-sheet needed. The play is designed to result with one receiver in each third of the end zone, with crossing patterns hopefully confusing the defense. That’s what happened. Senior Michael McCoy was left alone on the left side and Torrillo hit him just before getting hit.
Heubert nailed another kick, the defense stopped Eastridge in four plays, and Sweet Home had a 28-21 victory.
The Panthers have a state semifinal date with Section IV (Binghamton area) champion Union-Endicott Friday night at 8 in Rochester. A win would send Sweet Home to Syracuse for the state championship game for the third time in five seasons.
“I remember warming up with Mike at the Carrier Dome,” Torrillo Sr. said of playing catch with the then-ballboy in 2008. “He said, ‘Gosh it would be so cool to play here,’ and I said, ‘Hard work will do it.’ ”
That’s a lesson that two more Torrillos are starting to absorb — Mike’s younger brothers. Kevin, who quarterbacked the JV Panthers to an undefeated season, has been called up to varsity. Joseph, who is in middle school, is a quarterback, too.
But one Torrillo at a time. Mike Jr. is another scoring drive or two away from returning to the Carrier Dome — as a player.
“It’s huge for our confidence to play a tough game when adversity strikes, that even though we might have some miscues we can overcome that,” said Mike Jr. “We don’t want to have the season end. We’ll tone it down, make sure we’re not too overconfident or overexcited, and hopefully we’ll have another game next week.”
Around the halls
• There is no Power 10 this week. A final Power 10 wrapping up the best of the fall season will be published after all teams have finished their seasons.
• The only other two times that Section VI football won four out of five Far West Regionals — 2008 and 2009 — all went on to win state titles.
• Six other Section VI teams made the state final four: Williamsville East boys soccer, Eden and Ellicottville girls volleyball, Lake Shore boys volleyball and Williamsville North and Barker field hockey.
• There will be gameday capsules for this weekend’s state semifinals as well as Saturday’s Monsignor Martin championship.