Weekly Feature

2018-09-12 / Sports

North gridders edge Clarence in OT thriller


Friday night’s Class AA football game between Williamsville North and Clarence had all the makings of an instant classic — just not the ending the Red Devils and their fans were hoping for in what was the squad’s home opener for the 2018 season.

Thanks to Spartans’ quarterback Joe Nusall, who continued his torrid pace from North’s week-one victory, it was the visitors who leapt off the field en masse after Nusall escaped Clarence’s pressure and fired a perfect pass on the run to Dylan Kelly, who was able to walk into the end zone untouched for the 41-35 overtime victory.

“To come out of a game like that and be 1-0 in your division, especially this AA league where everyone is tough no matter what their record is, that’s a heck of an achievement,” North coach Mike Mammoliti said. “And even with the fact that we won against a really good and well-coached team, we still have room to improve. The best part about that is, nothing that occurred that wasn’t positive Friday night isn’t anything that can’t be fixed. At most, it comes down to our execution being a little off, and that’s something we can definitely work on this week.”

North was fortunate to even have a shot at victory in overtime after the way the hosts rallied — on both sides of the ball — to push the game into extra time. After Nusall found Kelly on a 25-yard strike just 13 seconds into the final stanza to put the Red Devils in their third two-touchdown hole of the game, Clarence got to work in putting together an inspiring comeback effort that began just over a minute later with Jack Putney’s 18-yard strike to Jon Stevens in the left corner of North’s end zone.

A three-and-out series by the Spartans that featured a third-down pass breakup by Jalen Lardill and fourth-down pressure on Nusall by Ryan Culhane gave Clarence the ball back with just under eight minutes remaining in regulation, and the Red Devils made sure not to squander their opportunity: Zach Norton capped Clarence’s 11-play, four-minute long drive with a plunge into the end zone from a yard out to knot the score at 35-35 with 3:25 to play in regulation.

North was able to start its ensuing drive once again with enviable field position after Dylan Mann, who seemingly could muscle his way through Red Devil defenders or accelerate by them with equal ability, was only prevented from taking the ball the distance by a second consecutive shoestring tackle by Sean Curry. In the end, however, Stevens came up with one of the biggest defensive plays of the game by picking off a Nusall pass in the end zone, leaping as if he were attempting to clear an invisible high jump bar to prevent the Spartans from stealing the decision in regulation.

“Three times we had them with two-score leads, but after they tied it up and we had another great return by Dylan to set up our drive, we felt pretty confident about our chances to get close enough so that we could have our new kicker, Max Obie, kick a field goal if we couldn’t score,” Mammoliti said. “We were feeling pretty good about our chances with that return, with the time we had left on the clock and with the fact that we had all our timeouts left.”

“I still stand by my claim that Jon is the best defensive back in Western New York,” Clarence coach Paul Burgio said. “He was going up against kids a lot taller than him, and their quarterback was dropping dimes all over the place, but Jon was glued to his guy all the time. He made a big-time play on that interception; if he doesn’t make that pick, they either score or put themselves in a spot to kick a chip-shot field goal. That play definitely kept the game alive for us.”

Overtime was a different story, however, as Putney, who finished the game 15-of-26 for 262 yards and three touchdowns, had his first attempt of the extra session batted down by Brett Colca, and his second was tipped at the line of scrimmage, allowing Mann to snag the interception that put North in the driver’s seat. Not even a botched snap on North’s first play — a snap that resulted in an 18-yard loss — could keep the Spartans from spoiling the Red Devils’ home debut as Nusall and Kelly drove home the final nail two plays later to seal North’s victory.

“It was a roller coaster of a game for sure that ultimately became a game of inches,” Burgio said. “You’re so proud of your kids for fighting back like they did and showing the grit that they did, but then the balloon bursts when the other team wins. We don’t want to be the team that’s proud of losing a close game anymore; we want to win that game. Unfortunately, if their quarterback gets out of the pocket and scrambles, he’s too good. You can’t put your secondary in position to have to cover receivers like theirs for more than four seconds.”

“Our kids showed a lot of resiliency and resolve Friday night,” Mammoliti said. “They showed great focus to be able to come out and play as hard and as well as they did. Joe in particular, I think he’s a better athlete than he gets credit for. His ability to scramble and keep plays alive was pretty huge for us a few times Friday night. He just doesn’t get rattled easily, and he’s great at keeping his eyes down the field to keep plays alive.”

North, which led 21-14 at the half, saw Nusall finish the game 10-of-17 for 206 yards and two touchdowns, leaving him a combined 19-of-26 for 411 yards and five touchdowns through the first two games of the season. Mann, who paced the Spartans’ ground game with 185 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries, also had one 22-yard long halfback option pass to Mike Cabra that went for a score. Kelly finished with five receptions for 134 yards and two touchdowns, while Scott Hopkins pitched in with four carries for 23 yards and a touchdown.

Kelly also led North’s defensive effort with nine tackles, while Scott Becht added seven tackles. Habra, Josh Walter and Jaden Rynkewicz all had four stops for the Spartans (2-0, 1-0 division), who will need to be even better this week to answer the challenge being poised by week three opponent Lancaster (2-0, 2-0 division), which is off to another strong start after playing in the state final last season.

“Lancaster has certainly had a nice run of things these last few years, and we can’t deny they were the better team last year when they beat us at New Era Field, but we’re a year older and more experienced now, and our guys understand the level of competition and the kinds of practices we need to have this week in order to have a heck of a game with them this weekend,” Mammoliti said.

Clarence, meanwhile, saw Putney add 95 yards on 17 carries to his passing total. Stevens caught nearly two-thirds of Putney’s completions, finishing with 133 yards and three touchdowns on nine receptions. He also had a pair of rushes for 3 yards and a score, while North finished with 47 yards on eight catches. Brendan Toole finished with 53 yards on two catches, while Mason Davis added 46 yards on two catches.

Defensively, Chris Kiener had seven tackles to lead the Red Devils’ efforts. Sam Petitjean (two pass deflections) and Davis each added six tackles, while Stevens deflected three passes and had five tackles — two for a loss — to go along with his late pick.

Burgio noted that Culhane “played probably one of the best games of his two-year career for us defensively,” and Norton also had five tackles for Clarence (1-1, 0-1 league), which will look to bounce back Friday when it hosts Bennett (1-1, 1-0 league) in a key divisional contest.

“I think North showed us that we’ve got to be better at stopping the run, even though North is just that good and I think they’ll be able to run the ball against anyone,” Burgio said. “We just don’t want to go into this week in a panic. We just showed that we can play with anybody by having one of the top two or three teams in Western New York on the ropes, but we’ve got to have a great week of practice in order to be ready for Bennett. They just put 40 points on Lockport and had four kids all rush for a ton of yards, so I guess we’ll find out this week if it was North or if it’s just that we can’t stop the run.”

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