After poring over the championship matchups for three of Section VI football's perennial powers, here's a breakdown of 11 things — one for each player a team has on the field — to keep in mind as the season's ultimate weekend at the Carrier Dome kicks off.
1. Section VI supporters have to like what they see when you take a look at the history of the state championships.
First, there is Section VI's recent run — and how this weekend's participants have been a part of it. After Section VI's unprecedented 4-for-5 state title run in 2008, it did it again in 2009. Throw in Orchard Park's championship last year, and Section VI has won nine of the last 20 state championships. OP (which also won in 2008), Sweet Home (2008 and 2009) and Randolph (2009) have all been a part of that run.
Take one step back, and take a look at how the winner of the Far West Regionals between Section VI and Section V (Rochester area) has done in recent years. Over the last four years, Section V has won six state titles, which means that 15 of the last 20 state championships have been won by the winner of the regional game.
From a broader view, just being the representative from the “West” side of the state has led to success, especially in the last decade. The finalist from the West side of New York — which includes Sections VI, V, IV (Binghamton area) and III (Syracuse area) —is 16-4 over the last four years and 35-15 in the 50 games played over the last 10 years.
The “East” finalist comes from the survivor of playoffs involving Section I (downstate's Dutchess, Putnam, Rockland and Westchester counties), II (Albany area), VII (Plattsburgh area), IX (downstate's Dutchess, Orange, Sullivan and Ulster counties) and X (Potsdam area).
2. While Section VI teams have recent experience at the Dome, so do their opponents — but there has been more than a little heartbreak involved, particularly in for the large schools.
Burnt Hills has lost three of the last four state championship games, including in 2008 and 2009 to Sweet Home. Last year, it took a 20-7 halftime lead on Maine-Endwell only to lose, 27-20.
New Rochelle's last two championship games have been marked by significant injuries that hindered their chances. In 2004, future Rutgers and current Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice suffered a broken collarbone and was knocked from a game that Greg Paulus and Christian Brothers Academy of Syracuse would win, 41-35.
In 2009, starting senior quarterback Lewis Edney was forced to leave the game in the first quarter with a badly injured ankle in what would be a 14-7 loss to North Tonawanda.
So while all that history and all those numbers might point favorably to Section VI, the rousing state semifinal victories by Burnt Hills (over offensive juggernaut Cornwall) and New Rochelle (final-minute comeback over state No. 1 Shaker) certainly suggest that this year might be their year.
3. Orchard Park is trying to win two Class AA state championships in a row, something that is extremely rare in the state's largest class.
Webster won the 2001 title, with Webster Schroeder winning the next year after Webster split two high schools (with Webster Thomas). Jamestown won titles in 1994 and 1995 in Class A, which was the state's largest class at that time. In 1996, it went to five classes.
4. For Orchard Park to appear in its second straight championship game is extremely impressive. This is certainly not a case of the major core of a team coming back. Last year's OP state title team included six All-Western New York first teamers, only one of which was a junior (lineman Michael Senn). The other five were running back Okoya Anderson, wide receiver Ben Johnson, lineman Devon Leach, linebacker James Fitzgerald and kicker Austin Reese.
I looked back at last year's live blog of the championship game, and here were other key seniors who were mentioned making an impact in the game: quarterback David Crowley, receivers Patrick Hogan and Luke Hoppy, linemen Joseph O'Shei, Daquan Rodriguez and Chase Smith, linebackers Richie Moore and Adam Knaszak and defensive backs Peter Goltz and Kole Robinson. Whew.
5. If there is anything that can be gained by Section VI having played New Rochelle and coach Lou DiRienzo in the 2009 championship, there's a coach on the OP sideline who probably will remember it.
Eric Jantzi was the head coach of North Tonawanda when it beat New Rochelle, 14-7.
Jantzi, who stepped down at NT after more than a decade with the Lumberjacks, then joined Orchard Park as a volunteer assistant. That gives the Quakers two of the best football coaches in Western New York — and probably the state — especially over the last couple of decades.
One play that DiRienzo would likely not want to see is a halfback option pass. NT's winning score in 2009 came on a memorable fourth-quarter play in which senior quarterback Mike Tuzzo pitched to the junior running back Joe Montesanti, who threw to the end zone for senior Darrik Bloomfield, who fought off a defender for a stunning, leaping 12-yard touchdown catch with 8:49 to play.
6. Sweet Home and Burnt Hills have a tremendous history on the field.
This is the third meeting between the schools at the Carrier Dome, with the Panthers winning both in 2008 and 2009.
In 2008, Casey Kacz quarterbacked the Panthers, and he led a crucial, time-killing drive to close out at 35-28 victory over the Spartans and quarterback Paul Layton (current University at Albany punter).
Junior linebacker Deshanaro “Day-Day” Morris ran 24 times for 98 yards and a touchdown while he had 10 tackles, a sack and an interception. That would be his final football game; he was injured in a car accident later that winter and he has been limited to a wheelchair since.
In 2009, Pat McMahon quarterbacked a Sweet Home team which starred senior running back Ralph Neasman, senior linebacker Steve Spencer, senior receiver D.J. Nettles and junior linebacker Mikal Coleman.
7. Sweet Home and Burnt Hills have a tremendous history off the field as well.
The relationship between the schools goes well beyond football. During Burnt Hills' runs to the Dome against Sweet Home, the son of Burnt Hills coach Matt Shell was undergoing extremely rigorous treatments for cancer.
Jacob Shell inspired a movement called “Shellstrong” and Sweet Home held a fundraiser during a home basketball game in the winter of 2010 (which was actually the subject of the very first PrepTalkTV feature video that Lauren Mariacher and I teamed up on) in which both Sweet Home and Williamsville South wore warmup shirts with “Shellstrong” on them and the entire gym was covered in signs in tribute to Jacob and his battle. For the teams' second meeting, Morris – now at the Dome in a wheelchair – made it a point to deliver some inspiring words to the Shell family before and after the game.
Jacob Shell was declared cancer-free in 2010. The Shellstrong Foundation was established in 2011 and it continues to hold fundraisers to provide assistance to children in various ways. The entire story is at shellstrongfoundation.org.
8. Perhaps the weekend's most balanced matchup on paper is in Class D, where Randolph and Tuckahoe have combined to win four of the last seven state championships.
Randolph won in 2005 and 2009 while Tuckahoe won in each of the following seasons — 2006 and 2010. This is the first meeting of these teams at the Dome.
9. While Section VI is not represented in the other two finals, both are quite notable.
When Section V champion Hornell plays Hoosick Falls of Section II (Albany area) in Saturday's noon Class C final, the Red Raiders will be seeking their fourth straight state title and their 52nd straight victory. Hornell beat Cleveland Hill in the Far West Regionals.
In Saturday's 3 p.m. Class B final, Section IV champion Maine-Endwell looks to follow its 49-14 semifinal rout of Alden with a second straight state title. M-E, which won the Class A crown last year, meets Glens Falls of Section II.
10. This weekend's games at Syracuse's Carrier Dome are the only state championships for football in New York State. However, they are specifically the championships of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association. They have been, a times, referred to as the “upstate championships.” Here's why:
Long Island's sections — VIII (Nassau County) and XI (Suffolk) — compete in the NYSPHSAA, but they choose not to participate in the football championships. Long Island determines overall champions but its seasons end there.
There are also New York City's public schools in the Public Schools Athletic League. Also separate are many of the state's private schools, particularly those who are not members of NYSPHSAA sections. Those include Catholic schools who are members of downstate's Catholic High Schools Athletic Association (like Iona Prep and St. Anthony's) as well as, of course, Western New York's Monsignor Martin Association.
11. Canisius ascended to the top spot in the New York State Sportswriters Association Class AA state poll this week. The Crusaders, who completed an undefeated season (11-0) last week by winning the Monsignor Martin titles, had been ranked second in recent weeks. Since the NYSSWA has historically split its top poll spots between the various entities within the state (cited above), it would seem that Canisius has guaranteed itself at least a share of the No. 1 spot in the state's season-ending poll.
All-WNY issue Dec. 1
The issue will include the All-Western New York teams (first, second, third and honorable mention), The Buffalo News Player of the Year, the final News polls, the Buffalo Bills/NFL Coach of the Year and all of Western New York's all-league teams.
Stay tuned for some special plans regarding the announcement of the team.