Most teams playing in the Section VI football finals in Ralph Wilson Stadium haven't been there in a few years. But the matchups sure look familiar.
All five finals are rematches from this year's regular season. The five regular-season games were decided by single-digit margins, and teams have had plenty of time to improve since the first meetings -- the most recent of which was in Week Five.
"We've improved as the season has gone on," said Lew-Port coach Brian Gunby, whose Lancers will try to avenge a 15-7 loss to Iroquois in the Class A final. "But most teams get better with each game. I know watching Iroquois against Sweet Home (the Chiefs won, 28-6), they've obviously improved."
The championship games, traditionally held on Friday night and Saturday afternoon in The Ralph, were moved to Thursday and Friday evenings because the Buffalo Bills host the New York Jets on Sunday and NFL rules prohibit use of the field for 24 hours before Sunday's game. Friday's tripleheader begins at 5 p.m., meaning the kickoff for the Class AA game is 10 p.m. Section VI Chairman Chuck Funke has said the games are starting then instead of earlier so parents could attend.
"I just think it's too late," said Orchard Park coach Gene Tundo. "Our kids have SATs the next day. They could have started earlier. How come every other sport starts early? Our field hockey game started at 3 the other day, and all the parents were there."
Here's a look at the matchups of the rematches:
Class AA: North Tonawanda lost its season opener at home to Orchard Park, 22-14, squeezed by Niagara Falls in overtime and has been rolling ever since. That might have something to do with sophomore Scott Gregson taking over some of the quarterbacking duties in Week Three. With Gregson hurting teams with his savvy option running ("He makes great reads," said Tundo) it has given the deep Lumberjacks yet another area to excel in. Senior LB Matt Scalice -- who still will take some snaps at QB after starting the season there -- leads a dominant defense for the Jacks, who have won their last seven games by an average of 35-11, including a 34-6 domination of West Seneca West.
"Matt has been playing better defense with the breaks," said NT coach Eric Jantzi, whose Jacks beat OP, 14-10, for the 2002 title. "As long as we win -- that's the only thing Matt's concerned with."
NT had three turnovers in its loss to OP, while the Quakers came up with some big plays, including a 90-yard screen pass touchdown by Ron Fulton.
Orchard Park seems to come up with great games playing at its "home" field and provides a great matchup for NT with its big men (led by 275-pound Jason Weber and 260-pound Chris Murphy).
"It should be the battle it's always been," Tundo said. "It'll be a classic."
Class A: Here's what Iroquois coach Frank Payne remembers of Lew-Port: "Really good and physical up front. One of the toughest teams we played." Here's what Gunby remembers of Iroquois: "They have big kids that are just tough. They fight and beat you up on every play."
Sounds like it should make for another rough-and-tumble game, perhaps like Iroquois' 15-7 win in Week Three. That game was decided when linebacker Tyrell Riley stripped the ball from running back Dan Gaffney at the Iroquois 30 and his return set up a 33-yard field goal by sophomore Kyle Shevlin.
Lew-Port's line of seniors Adam Zerby, Dan Trapasso, Mike Crystal, Josh Krupp and Andrew Kroetsch were seasoned by a 2003 run to the finals, where they lost to Grand Island. Gunby has the Lancers back in his first year as head coach, and he credited assistants Richard Lindamer (defense) and Jon Hoover (special teams, lineman).
Riley starred for Lew-Port again last week against Sweet Home (14 tackles), while Shevlin's leg could be a significant threat in The Ralph through touchbacks and field goals. Fullback Matt Gartler and linemen Mike Pawelek (265 pounds), Dan Zagst (215), Luke Jesonowski (210), Brian Craig (210) and Chris Hutka (255) have all been keys, with two-way standout Steve Mamak leading the way. "I don't know how," Gunby said, "but we've got to control Mamak." Mamak sprained his right ankle late in the Chiefs' win over Sweet Home, but Payne says "knowing him, he'll be ready to go."
Class B: A win by Southwestern would break through plenty of history. The Trojans have lost in their only two appearances at The Ralph, including the 2001 final to Olean, 15-14, when the Huskies went for two with 1:01 left. Olean has beaten Class B South rival Southwestern six straight times since 1998, including a 21-16 win in Week Five that came the way most of the Huskies' wins have come, behind standout games by QB Justin George, running backs Julio Fuentes and Neil Fay, and receiver John Klatte. Olean has won seven straight.
Southwestern, which lost last year's final to Eden, 48-33, is coming off an extremely strong performance in a 17-14 win at Tonawanda. The Trojans showed off their ability to pass (QB Chad Bush), kick (Chris Stoddard's game-winning 32-yard FG), run (Steve Mancari) and play great defense, personified by tough guy senior linebacker Matt Mazgaj.
"This is what you dream of when you're a little kid playing midget football -- playing in that stadium," said Mazgaj. "Now we've got to go an extra step."
Class C: Portville is the only team defending a title at The Ralph after winning its first last year. Senior QB Brian Nitsche, junior running back Joe Holcomb and junior defensive end Brad Holcomb are back, as is standout senior lineman Matt Miller. Nitsche ran for three TDs and threw for another, while Joe Holcomb had 153 yards as the visiting Panthers crushed Cleveland Hill, 43-8, in the semifinals.
Falconer seeks its first title since 1994 and hopes to repeat its Week Four 32-23 win over the Panthers. Must-see running back/linebacker Curt Jones (6-foot, 190) had four touchdown runs last week against Silver Creek, including scores of 68, 88 and 51 yards. Cody Spicer took over the QB duties three games ago after starter Brandon Jaroszynski was hurt, and senior Aaron Erickson is a top running back/linebacker.
Class D: Ellicottville is still seeking its first title since 1991 after losing to Randolph in the final last year, which was the first year Maple Grove missed the finals after a run of seven in a row. The Red Dragons are led by standout runner Devin Raynor, while kicker Brian Kendall (field goals of 43 and 47 yards) could the player who could give Maple Grove its first title since 1998; the teams' previous meeting was a two-point game (Ellicottville, 16-14). The Eagles are led by tough runner Chris Moore, QB Tyler Dunne, receiver Kyle Mendell and lineman Jacob Clark.