ROCHESTER — The Cleveland Hill football team faced two undeniable forces of nature Saturday.
One was cold, windy, snowy weather snow which turned the green artificial turf of Sahlen’s Stadium white for much of the afternoon.
The other was perennial power Chenango Forks of Section IV (Binghamton area), which earned its seventh trip to the state championship game with a 22-0 shutout of the Golden Eagles in the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class C semifinals.
The Blue Devils’ defense limited what had been a dangerous Cleveland Hill offensive attack to 39 yards, while it racked up 231 on offense as it scored in each quarter. Senior Isaiah Zimmer ran for two touchdowns and 133 yards on 30 carries for Chenango Forks.
All of Forks’ seven trips to the state final at the Carrier Dome have come in the last 12 years, including state titles in Class B in 2003 and 2004.
The Blue Devils (11-1) will play for this year’s championship at noon next Sunday in Syracuse against Section I (Dutchess, Putnam, Rockland and Westchester counties) winner Rye Neck. Rye Neck scored a 14-0 win over defending state champion Hoosick Falls of Section II (Albany area).
Cleveland Hill’s season ends at 11-1 after winning the Class C North title and a second straight Section VI championship, then making school history as the first Golden Eagles team to win a Far West Regional game to make the state semifinals.
“Our kids played fantastic all year long,” said 11th-year Cleveland Hill coach Glen Graham. “At the beginning of the year we talked about winning the division, then trying to repeat as a sectional champion and then trying to be a state champion. We fell short obviously, but this is a fantastic football team and I’ll love these guys to death.”
Even before the weather really made it tough on offenses, the Chenango Forks defense showed that it would likely be able to do that if it was clear and sunny.
The Blue Devils stopped Cleveland Hill on a three-and-out, then went on a long drive – 10 plays, 55 yards over 4:33 – which ended with a 4-yard run by Zimmer with 5:51 left in the first quarter.
Cleve Hill rushed for 56 yards on 32 carries. Senior standout Brandon Thomas was hounded all day, with enough tackles behind the line of scrimmage to result in a total of 7 yards on 18 attempts.
The conditions kept getting worse, and so did the Golden Eagles’ chances. Zimmer added an 18-yard run with 7:24 left in the first half that would account for Chenango Forks’ 13-0 halftime lead.
While Cleve Hill had trouble passing for much of the game (2 for 10 total), Forks got its third touchdown when senior quarterback John Colm Sweeney hit senior Andrew Ziegenfus for a 10-yard score with 8:57 left in the third. That play was the first after a Cleve Hill fumble.
“They’re big, they’re physical and we didn’t do a very good job up front in the first half,” said Graham. “Our goal was to try and shorten the game up, but that one turnover that set up their third score really took it out of us and made it really tough.”
The teams combined for seven turnovers in the slippery conditions, with Forks fumbling three times and Cleve Hill having a pair of interceptions and fumbles.
“It was an obstacle, I think mentally more than anything else,” Graham said of the weather. “The wind was the biggest factor. The snow was fine, but the wind will always affect you – particularly the passing game. We had to try to use the passing game to come back and it just wasn’t there for us today.”
Chenango Forks capped its performance with a safety with 8:07 to play on a sack by senior Mike Zurenda, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior who was all over Cleveland Hill ball carriers all day (seven tackles, four for loss).
“Once it got really cruddy, we were happy we had the lead, that’s for sure,” Chenango Forks coach Dave Hogan said of the weather. “I can’t say enough about our defense. I just felt so good about our defense playing so well.”
Cleveland Hill is a six-time Section VI champion which was ranked second among small schools in the most recent News poll.
“I’m going to tell our seniors that I love them and I’ll remember this group as long as I can, and try to keep my faculties about me,” an emotional Graham said amidst snow flurries on the field after the game, before meeting with his team for the final time. “And I’ll remind our guys who are returning that the hard work starts in another six or seven days.”