Oct 23, 2006 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
Mingled together on the turf late on a cold Friday night at Bragman Stadium, football players, students, cheerleaders, parents, pep band members, and just about everyone else from Fayetteville-Manlius celebrated an impossible dream come true.
Ridding itself of two years of painful memories, the F-M Hornets put an end to Christian Brothers Academy’s reign as Class AA champions, stunning the Brothers 43-35 in the opening round of the AA playoffs — and delivering one of the biggest victories in the program’s history.
“We were playing for our community tonight,” said head coach Paul Muench.
His players echoed those thoughts, saying that much of what motivated the Hornets on this night was its losses to CBA in each of the last two Class AA title games at the Carrier Dome.
“I will never forget this as long as I live,” said quarterback Buddy Leathley.
These two schools share a lot more than recent football history. Many CBA students hail from the F-M district, only adding to the emotions every time they face each other.
Going in, it was expected that this chapter would end like the others. F-M was just 3-4, the fourth-place team in the Class AA-2 league, and was just six days removed from a 25-point loss to Henninger.
CBA, by contrast, was 7-0, having just completed its seventh consecutive undefeated regular season, and it boasted a lineup of scary offensive talent that included quarterback Mike Paulus, who is headed to the University of North Carolina next fall.
Despite some close calls in previous weeks, the Brothers fully anticipated that it would get to the semifinals, as it had each of the previous 11 years. Even a change of venue, from Alibrandi Stadium (the field was swamped by heavy rains) to Cicero-North Syracuse, was not supposed to change the story all that much.
“We had to play as well as we could possibly play to beat them,” said Muench. And F-M did just that.
True to form, the Brothers struck first, as Mike Paulus threw a six-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Didio midway through the opening period.
All that did, though, was inspire F-M to play close to perfection for the rest of the first half, reeling off 21 unanswered points and taking full advantage of a string of costly CBA penalties.
Leathley’s accurate throws to Pat Lee and Scott Kleinklaus set up Austin Straub’s tying one-yard TD run. On a fourth down from the Brothers’ 27, Leathley went deep — and threw a perfect strike to Ethan Gilbert for the go-ahead score. Just 50 seconds before halftime, Leathley hit Kleinklaus on a nine-yard scoring strike.
Even with a 21-7 halftime lead, F-M did not feel that safe, knowing how quickly CBA’s offense could put up points. But the Hornets had done an effective job in the first half putting pressure on Paulus while, at the same time, offering blanket coverage to the Brothers’ receiving corps.
Then came a three-play sequence people will talk about a long time.
On first down from his own 37, Paulus went back — and Meril Tili sacked him for a 13-yard loss. On second down, Paulus again dropped back to throw — and again got sacked, this time by Gilbert.
Now it was third down on the 12. Trying to produce something, Paulus went back to his end zone — and Pat Lee got him for a safety. Three plays, three sacks, and two points that built F-M’s advantage to 23-7.
CBA was far from done, though. Showing its championship heart, it began eating into the Hornets’ edge late in the period, as Jovan Miller went 70 yards for a touchdown, but F-M countered with Leathley hitting Mike Rosenbaum on a 69-yard pass, the key moment of a 92-yard march culminated by Straub’s second TD.
This only made the Brothers angry. It slashed F-M’s lead to 29-22, and after Marcus Sales picked off Leathley early in the fourth quarter, Paulus threw a 24-yard TD pass to Peter-Jon Clarke with 10:55 left, tying the game at 29-29.
Muench said that the CBA rally reminded his team of the Henninger debacle of the previous week, and that it was important to stay poised.
“We got rattled (against Henninger) when things went wrong,” he said. ‘That allowed us to bounce back from those issues tonight.”
F-M kept answering CBA’s blows, marching 76 yards, most of it on clutch catches by Gilbert. Lee ran the final two yards into the end zone, and F-M was back in front, 36-29, with 6:08 left.
“We had to keep putting points on the board,” said Leathley.
A mere 59 seconds later, CBA found itself back in the end zone, Paulus hitting Kevin Didio on a 19-yard strike, and it looked like the Brothers would tie things again.
Only this time, Kris Estabrook’s extra-point attempt hooked wide right — the kind of moment that only fed into the Hornets’ sense of destiny in this epic affair.
Determined to eat up the clock, F-M got the ball back and did nothing but run Austin Straub, who chewed up both yards and time. With 1:41 to play, Straub motored the final 19 yards into the end zone, and the Hornets’ lead swelled to eight.
CBA still had a chance to force overtime. But F-M pressured Paulus one more time, forced him to throw across the middle — and Shane Bush picked it off, the biggest interception of his career, to seal a classic win.
When the clock hit zero, much of the F-M fans rushed onto the field. And the final score hung on the scoreboard for a long time, as if to convince all of the Hornet faithful that it was true.
“To come out here and pull this off, (sure) it’s just a playoff game, but it’s a lot more than that,” said Gilbert.
Now the Hornets will come back to CNS Saturday night at 7 p.m. to play the AA semifinal, hoping to get back to the Carrier Dome for next weekend’s title game against Rome Free Academy or Liverpool.
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