South Park coach Tim Delaney pumps the brakes when folks start talking of the Sparks going on another championship run.
It's not that he feels his team lacks the potential to do something special. It's just that Delaney understands the difficult process of winning, having lived through the experience when the 2015 Sparks made history in becoming the first Buffalo Public Schools football program to win a Section VI and state championships.
"What people don't really realize is that one we never ever thought about (winning the title) the whole time and two it's really hard to do," he said. "We have to focus on one week at a time, keep getting better and notching another win."
Delaney's crew took a step in the right direction at the mid-point of the regular season under a hot, unforgiving sun Saturday afternoon at All High Stadium. Senior Jeremiah Sanders and junior Greg Braswell combined to make the fourth-down stop that enabled South Park to top McKinley, 12-7, in a hard-hitting, Class A South contest between former rivals of the now defunct Harvard Cup.
The Sparks' top defensive tackles blew up a fourth-and-4 running play by quarterback Taelon Hollamon with roughly 2 minutes left near the South Park 40 to thwart the Macks' comeback bid before an estimated 2,000. The stop not only enabled the Sparks to improve to 4-0 for the first time during Delaney's coaching tenure but also showed they can win in grind-it-out fashion after entering the clash having outscored foes, 114-7.
"I think that McKinley is a lot better than its record (indicates)," said Delaney, who's in his 10th season. "I think they're just a tough physical team. I liked the way that we responded having to play a tight game.
"We have a lot of things to work on. People haven't really believed me but we're really young. We have a couple of really experienced seniors and the rest of the guys are sophomores and juniors playing. Winning varsity football games is not an easy feat so coming out with a win is still coming out with a win."
The Sparks, ranked fifth among large schools in Western New York, kept McKinley's power offense in check (149 total yards) and limited star running back Kaiyer Fields to 89 yards on 28 carries -- often crowding the line with 10 players and leaving just one safety back in coverage.
The Macks have lost three straight to division foes since opening with an attention-getting win at last year's Class AA runner-up Orchard Park. This is the second straight game they've limited their foe to 12 points but failed to experience victory.
It wasn't for lack of trying, as the Macks became the first team to score an offensive touchdown against South Park when Fields rumbled in from the 4 with 7 minutes, 34 seconds left to make it 12-7.
McKinley limited the Sparks to season lows in points (12) and yards (224). South Park junior quarterback Deabeyon Humphrey (11 for 14, 89 yards) made two nice throws to produce the points his team needed for victory.
The first was a 10-yarder to Dayquan Anderson on the Sparks' first offensive series. The final one came with 25 seconds left in the third quarter when Humphrey spun out of a near sack and threw his third-down pass toward the back of the end zone where Shyquan Brodie made a leaping grab for the 11-yard score.
— Miguel Rodriguez (@miggyrod33) September 23, 2017
"This is definitely the hardest game we've had this season," said Sanders, the two-time All-Western New York first team lineman. "This'll help us improve on the things that we're missing."
It looked like South Park might cruise to another win when it scored on its first possession. After blocking a field-goal attempt, the Sparks marched 65 yards in 15 plays in a drive that took nearly 8 minutes. McKinley, which now finds itself in a spot where it must win its final three games and hope the tiebreakers work in its favor, didn't let its foe run away.
In fact, the Macks had chances to produce more than seven points but blunted promising drives with mistakes, usually on first down, to put their run-oriented offense in unfavorable situations (they completed just 1 of 2 passes for 37 yards).
McKinley also caught a bad break late in the second quarter after reaching the Sparks' 15. An attempted forward pass by Hollamon was ruled a fumble via strip sack and recovered by South Park, which went into halftime up 6-0. Hollamon's arm looked like it may have been hit as he threw.
— Miguel Rodriguez (@miggyrod33) September 23, 2017
The Macks' defense had a shining moment on the first series of the third quarter as it held South Park to no yardage on four plays after it marched down the field and earned first-and-goal from the 1. McKinley also made the key fourth-down stop it needed later in the fourth quarter to give its offense one last chance at trying to earn the win.
The Sparks proved to be more than up for the game-saving task and now head into Friday's key division clash at playoff-contender Iroquois rolling having passed their toughest test, yet.
"We needed this game," said Braswell. "This game most definitely woke us up because we thought coming into this week we would just blow them out. Oh, they're 1-2, they've been losing games … they only have one person, but they gave us a workout."
"We're just going to keep working," Delaney said.
Clarence Thomas led South Park with 81 yards on 20 rushes.