The Iroquois football team thought it had it. The Chiefs were ready to return to the Carrier Dome next week for the state championship game. Then came the Hollywood finish, and Iroquois was on the wrong end of it.
Maine-Endwell, without two major starters including its quarterback, completed its second last-minute comeback in as many weeks to beat Iroquois, 33-28, Friday night in the Class A state semifinals before an estimated 5,000.
"This is a thing that they make movies out of," said Maine-Endwell coach Jack Touhey, whose team lost 6-foot-3, 295-pound senior tackle Ben Amorese (ankle) and senior quarterback Shane Connolly (knee) to injuries in the first half. "Our two best kids went down. Did the air come out of the balloon? No. I can't explain it."
The script was full of standout performances on both sides, super substitutes for Maine-Endwell and some debatable calls -- both on the officiating and coaching sides -- in a dramatic second half.
Iroquois (9-3) had a 28-27 lead when senior quarterback Matt Baker hit Josh Hochdachel in the back of the end zone for an apparent touchdown with 2:40 to play. But as Baker walked to the sidelines with his hands in the air, the attention shifted to the flag on the ground. An illegal block was called on Iroquois to nullify the score.
"We thought we had the game won when I threw that touchdown pass," said Baker. "I'll probably need to get psychiatry for that because that was one of the worst moments of my life. I don't know where that flag came from. That was our season right there."
Said Iroquois coach Frank Payne: "We're stunned. We thought we had that touchdown to go up eight. I have to watch the tape. I can't tell you if it was a good call or a bad call, but it's a shame because our kids deserve it."
Iroquois had earned its lead with some razzle-dazzle passes, including a 25-yarder from Kyle Shevlin to Lou DePlato in the second quarter in which Shevlin took a handoff from Baker before passing to DePlato.
After the illegal block put the Chiefs in a third-and-21 at the Maine-Endwell 29 with 2:37 to play, Iroquois elected to go with more trickery. This time, Baker threw a pass to Shevlin, still behind the line of scrimmage, near the right sideline. Shevlin then tried to hit Mike Perrilo on the right side of the end zone, but his pass was intercepted by M-E's Brian Sanford.
"At that point it was like third-and-25, so I figured we had to make something happen," said Payne.
Maine-Endwell took over at its 21 with 2:26 to play and marched through Iroquois for a go-ahead score. The Spartans moved 79 yards on six plays in just 1:32, including a 33-yard option run by substitute quarterback Pat Barrett. Three plays later, Mike Meta carried the ball off left tackle for the 1-yard touchdown and a 33-28 lead with 54 seconds to play. Iroquois didn't get out of its own end on its final possession and was halted by another Sanford interception.
Maine-Endwell (11-0) of Section VI (Binghamton area), which came back from a 20-0 deficit to win its regional game (27-20), will play for the state title at 4 p.m. Friday.
Baker had a standout performance -- 8 of 12 for 92 yards and two touchdowns -- after all the recent talk about who would carry the ball for the Chiefs. Baker hit Hochdachel on a 6-yard TD in the second quarter that forged a 21-21 halftime tie, and he coolly found William Nue on a third-and-goal from the 3 to help Iroquois to a 28-27 lead with 11:15 left.
Senior Steve Mamak returned from a sprained ankle to his workhorse role with the Chiefs, running 20 times for 119 yards. Andy Wolffe, who set a state record with seven touchdowns in Iroquois' 67-48 regional win a week ago, returned the opening kickoff for an 80-yard TD and rushed for 55 yards.