SYRACUSE – There would not be another postseason comeback for Sweet Home. And there would not be another championship disappointment for Burnt Hills.
Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, a football program that had gone 0 for 3 in Class A state championship games in the previous four postseasons, seemed to take out years of frustration in the form of an excellent performance Friday afternoon as it beat the Panthers, 40-20, for its first state title.
Burnt Hills took a 26-0 halftime lead against a Sweet Home program that it had lost to in the 2008 and 2009 finals. Then, before an estimated 5,000 at the Carrier Dome, the Spartans foiled the comeback attempts of a Panthers team that had rallied back from halftime deficits to win its previous two playoff games.
“Whenever you get this far, a loss hurts more than any other loss, because it’s the last one and your season’s over,” said Sweet Home coach John Faller. “I give a lot of credit to Matt [Shell, Burnt Hills coach] and his team. They took it to us today. We tried to come back a little bit in the second half and didn’t quite have enough. It’s a tribute to them. When you’re beat, you’re beat, and today we got beat by a better team.”
It is the first loss that Sweet Home (12-1) suffered against a team that wasn’t Rochester private school power Aquinas since 2006. The Panthers are 68-4 over the last six years.
The Panthers hurt themselves with four turnovers and a total of 12 penalties for 116 yards; in the first half, Sweet Home had nine penalties for 88 yards and Burnt Hills had none.
Burnt Hills (12-1) took control from the start, scoring on its first two drives and limiting Sweet Home to two three-and-outs. Senior Ryan McDonnell threw for two touchdowns in the first half, both of which beat the Sweet Home defense cleanly, and the second of which put the Spartans up, 19-0, 2:53 into the second quarter. Daniel Maynard, who ran 14 times for 128 yards, scored his second touchdown of the first half on a 3-yard run that made it 26-0 with 6:09 left in the second quarter.
Sweet Home went on its first impressive drive of the game late in the second quarter, but on first-and-goal at the 3, inside the final minute of the half, a pressured Mike Torrillo had his throw deflected in the end zone by Logan Ball and intercepted by David Newell to preserve the first-half shutout.
However, Sweet Home had the look of a team intent on creating more second-half drama when it quickly scored on its first drive of the third quarter to make it 26-7.
Sophomore Jordan Heine had a great kickoff return to set up Sweet Home for what would be a four-play, 42-yard, 2:30 drive that was finished off by sophomore Jordan Evert’s 6-yard run out of the Panthers’ double-wing formation nicknamed “Big Bird.”
Sweet Home’s momentum grew when Brad Zaffram intercepted McDonnell’s screen pass on Burnt Hills’ next drive.
However, the Panthers turned the ball over on their next play when senior Michael McCoy, headed for a big first-down gain, had the ball pop loose. The Spartans would keep the ball for a 46-yard drive that ended with Daniel Porter’s 5-yard run and a 33-7 lead with 5:24 to play in the third.
Burnt Hills – which lost last year’s title game to Maine-Endwell, 27-20, after leading, 20-7, at halftime – had to see a key M-E touchdown highlight from that game replayed on the Jumbotron before the game. But the Spartans thwarted any thoughts of another second-half stumble – or another Sweet Home comeback – with their strong ground game and defense.
Torrillo hit Zaffram for a 47-yard touchdown with 2:57 left in the third, but it was answered just 1:33 later by a 39-yard run by junior Joshua Quesada for a 40-14 Burnt Hills lead.
The Panthers’ hopes for a comeback that would exceed their rally from a 21-7 fourth quarter deficit against Eastridge in the Far West Regionals all but ended when, on first-and-goal at the 1, Khalil Humphries had the ball knocked loose and Burnt Hills recovered with 9:31 to play. Calvin Martin’s 37-yard touchdown from Torrillo came with one second left in the game.
Late in the fourth quarter, the Burnt Hills sideline chanted, “Coach Shell! Coach Shell!” It was a tribute to its coach and what he has had to overcome in the last few years.
In the Spartans crowd was Jacob Shell, the coach’s son, who battled cancer before being declared free of the disease in recent years. After Sweet Home learned of Jacob’s story, it held fundraisers to support “Shellstrong,” an effort that continues good work today.
“It’s different with Sweet Home,” Matt Shell said. “[Jacob] was in the hospital in Boston when we played them [in 2008 and ‘09]. They were really good to our family over the years, and they had never met him or seen him before. I’m very glad he was able to be here. It’s football, but there’s a different side of the whole thing.
“[Sweet Home was] just really kind and awesome to our family. There was an extra twist that not many games have, which is pretty special. Coach Faller is a first-class person, aside from obviously being an awesome coach. And that’s what it’s about at the end of the day. He’s a class act and their athletic director, Chris DeMarco, is a class act.”