It took a group of Legends to deny the Cicero-North Syracuse football team a shot at the state Class AA championship.
The Lancaster Legends (Section VI) defeated the Northstars 35-21 in Saturday night’s state AA final at Union-Endicott’s Ty Cobb Stadium, using its power and poise to overwhelm C-NS in the fourth quarter.
In particular, it was Lancaster’s 6-foot, 220-pound Joe Andreessen that caused the most damage, scoring two touchdowns and throwing for another to erase a 14-6 Northstars lead. Head coach David Kline said the inability to bring Andreessen down proved his team’s undoing.
Also, the Legends hurt C-NS with a pair of long returns for scores at the outset and the conclusion, which proved the ultimate difference in a game that sent Lancaster into next Sunday’s state title game at the Carrier Dome against defending champion Troy, who beat Newburgh 20-14 in the other semifinal.
C-NS wasn’t alone venturing into new state tournament territory. Lancaster, with a far longer history and far older football heritage, was also making its first state semifinal appearance.
The similarities didn’t end there. Like the Northstars, the Legends, from the Buffalo suburbs, had dominated its local competition, and then carried that success into a 9-0 shutout of Rochester Aquinas in the regional final.
So it was Lancaster’s big, strong and aggressive defense against Conner Hayes, Erik Pride and the potent C-NS attack anchored by a dominant offensive line. But neither got on the board first.
Instead, it was Lancaster’s Kyle Backert fielding the opening kickoff on his own 25 and, running up the right side, tore to the end zone, putting C-NS in a 6-0 hole just 11 seconds into the game.
In the early going, C-NS found more success with Hayes throwing passes to Lukas Merluzzi, since Pride found himself unable to run inside the tackles. Twice in the first quarter, the Northstars were stopped on fourth down in Lancaster territory.
Hayes missed a series early in the second quarter with a sore ankle, and while he quickly returned, C-NS continued to struggle moving the ball. Even a successful fake punt pass by Hayes in the last minute of the half was negated by an ineligible receiver penalty.
So it went to halftime still 6-0, with the Northstars, held to a season-low 93 yards in the first two periods, needing to figure out how to break through against a Legends first-team defensive unit that had not allowed a touchdown since September.
It took just 26 seconds of the third quarter to find that breakthrough. It came from an outside sweep that sprung Jeremiah Willis down the right sideline, 71 yards for a touchdown that, with Hayes’ extra point, gave C-NS a 7-6 lead.
Fired up by that big play, the C-NS defense forced Lancaster into a muffed snap on a fake punt that Jaiquawn McGriff recovered at the Legends’ 33. With a short field, the Northstars turned it into more points, Pride going the final 11 yards to the end zone.
Yet all that did was awaken Lancaster’s dormant offense. Andreessen, starting to take “Wildcat” snaps, broke several C-NS tackles on a 42-yard TD run, the first defensive points C-NS surrendered. But Andreesen was stopped on the tying two-point try.
The Legends got moving again after Brett Beetow intercepted Hayes near his own goal line, thwarting a C-NS chance to rebuild its margin. Instead, Andreessen’s 38-yard run set up his own 20-yard scoring pass to Beetow on the first play of the fourth quarter, and Lancaster led again, 20-14.
Not done yet, Andreessen did most of the work on another Lancaster scoring drive that he finished off with a two-yard TD run with 4:35 to play, and the two-point conversion meant the Northstars trailed, 28-14, but it wasn’t done yet.
Hayes took just three plays to drive C-NS 70 yards, the last 45 of them on a scoring pass to Nate Geloff with 3:31 left. And the Northstars got the ball back, driving to midfield – until Hayes, forcing a throw, got picked off by Max Giordano, who returned it 65 yards for a clinching touchdown with 1:11 left.
After it was done, Kline reminded his disappointed players that the loss would hurt, but not take away from what they had accomplished the last two years – namely, a 20-2 record, a first-ever Section III title and the establishment of C-NS as one of the elite programs in Central New York.
“I”m so proud of these kids,” said Kline. “They’ve taken this program to a whole new level, and there’s no going back.”
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