Never was the potency of the Skaneateles football team required more than it was on a gloomy Saturday afternoon at Union-Endicott’s Ty Cobb Stadium, when the state Class C semifinal against Cleveland Hill turned into a festival of big plays and massive momentum swings.
In the end, though, it was the quick legs of junior quarterback Patrick Hackler, more than his strong right arm, that helped push the Lakers past the Eagles 63-56 and into the program’s first-ever state title game.
Three times in the second half, Hackler broke free for long touchdown runs, eventually gaining 384 yards on the ground to go with 312 yards on 15-of-30 completions, helping Skaneateles overcome a 50-35 halftime deficit as a defense that had massive early struggles redeemed itself with the way it played down the stretch.
Much like with the previous week’s 42-41 regional thriller against Newark Valley, Skaneateles was facing an opponent atop the state rankings that emphasized the ground game.
But Cleveland Hill, the Section VI champions from the Buffalo suburb of Cheektowaga, had to deal with the record-setting Hackler and all the ways he could hurt an opposing defense.
It didn’t take long for Hackler to burn Cleveland Hill with a big play. On the Lakers’ opening drive, it faced fourth-down-and-21 from the Eagles’ 34, but Hackler found Cross Bianchi for a 31-yard strike near the goal line. Three plays later, Hackler found Areh Boni on a three-yard touchdown pass.
Cleveland Hill’s ground game got going late in the first quarter, moving to the Skaneateles 31 before Javon Thomas tore through the middle of the line to the end zone. A two-point conversion put the Eagles in front 8-7 going to the second period, where things really got crazy.
Hackler set up his own seven-yard TD run with a 56-yard pass to Nate Wellington down the right sideline. Thomas countered with a long run to the Lakers’ 16 and, one play later, Aaron Wahler found the end zone, tying it 14-14.
That tie lasted all of three plays. Again, Hackler hit Wellington down the right sideline, a 44-yard strike that, one play later, led to Wamp flashing open over the middle and catching a 26-yard scoring pass.
Thomas found the end zone a second time with a 60-yard TD dash. It took one play for Hackler to top it, spreading out five wide receivers and then taking off up the middle through the Eagles’ secondary 63 yards to the other end zone.
A third Thomas TD run covered 78 yards, and the two-point conversion tied it again, 28-28. That tie lasted less than two minutes until Hackler, rolling right, found a wide-open Bianchi from the Eagles’ 38 that resulted in yet another Lakers touchdown.
And that lead didn’t last long, either. Ryan Majerowski joined in the fun for Cleveland Hill by returning the next Skaneateles kickoff 75 yards for a TD, with the two-pointer inching Cleveland Hill in front 36-35.
Only now did the furious exchange get snapped with D’Mario Grant intercepting Hackler in the end zone, and Thomas got loose once more on a 74-yard TD pass three plays later. To complete this wild second quarter, Thomas burned Skaneateles again, this time on a 54-yard TD dash with 23 seconds left in the half.
So a quarter that included 28 points from the Lakers still ended with it behind the Eagles 50-35, in large part because of Thomas, who in just eight carries amassed 353 rushing yards.
But the beleaguered Lakers’ defense began its turnaround in the third quarter, forcing one punt and then having Jacob Comer recover a fumble to stop a Cleveland Hill drive inside its own 20.
An 83-yard scoring drive followed as Hackler threw his fourth TD pass to Jacob Nesbitt from 16 yards out. Then the Lakers recovered an onside kick – only to have Hackler get intercepted for a third time as Wahler got the pick at his own 30 and brought it back 70 yards for six points.
Atoning for this, Hackler again showed his speed by dashing 73 yards to the end zone on the Lakers’ next possession. Minutes later, from his own 14, Hackler again caught Cleveland Hill’s defense spread out wide and made an 86-yard TD dash that cut the Lakers’ deficit to one, 56-55, despite a botched extra-point snap.
What ultimately saved Skaneateles was Cleveland Hill’s continued inability to hang on to the ball. Twice in the fourth quarter, Eagles drives were thwarted by fumbles that the Lakers were able to recover, the first of them on the five-yard line with less than eight minutes to play.
Bianchi recovered the last of those fumbles at his own 31. Then, from his own 48, Hackler escaped the pocket, found more room in the center of the field and didn’t stop until he had crossed the goal line again, following it up with a two-point pass to Nesbitt, with 4:39 left.
Now with a seven-point lead to protect, Skaneateles again turned to its defense, which continued its strong play as it limited Thomas to just 65 yards in the last two quarters.
With two more stops in the closing minutes, a return to the Carrier Dome, where the Lakers beat General Brown in the Nov. 4 Section III final, was secured, this time for the biggest prize of all.
Skaneateles faces Section II champion Holy Trinity Friday night at 6 p.m. in the state championship game. Holy Trinity edged Burke Catholic 28-23 in the other semifinal and, like the Lakers, will try to win a first state title in program history.