ENDICOTT – It was a matter of when not if Lancaster would unleash the full Joe Andreessen on Cicero-North Syracuse on Saturday night.
With the Legends trailing for the first time this season nearly 4 minutes into the second half of the biggest game in program history coach Eric Rupp decided it was time to turn to his "Tank" offense.
The Legends' version of the wildcat with the big, powerful and nimble Andreessen under center caved in a C-NS defense that had kept them under wraps and secured another special memory in a historic season.
Lancaster (12-0) punched its ticket to the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association Class AA football championship game for the first time. The Legends did it by rallying for a 35-21 victory over the Section III champions at Ty Cobb Stadium at Union-Endicott High School.
An estimated crowd of more than 2,000 watched the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Andreessen morph from difference-making linebacker into difference-making wildcat quarterback as the senior rushed for touchdowns of 43 and 2 yards and also passed for a 20-yard TD as Lancaster overcame a 14-6 deficit to win a thoroughly entertaining game against a Northstars team that entered the semifinals averaging more than 52 points per game.
"We looked at some things at halftime and we said, 'you know what? Big games you have to put the ball in the hand of your best player' and Joseph had an incredible second half," said Rupp, the Legends' second-year coach. "We needed to do something to get momentum back in our hands. That one play down here where they had him stopped in the backfield and somehow he squirted out of there and busted for a large touchdown. That was the turning point of the whole game."
That would be Andreessen's second carry – a 43-yard touchdown that pulled the Legends within 14-12 with 6:44 left in the third quarter.
There would be more runs in which he bounced off or dragged tacklers, but his right arm gave Lancaster the lead for good early in the fourth quarter. After Brett Beetow ended a C-NS march at the Legends' 15 with an interception, a wide-open Beetow made sure he secured the catch on 20-yard touchdown pass from Andreessen 6 seconds into the fourth quarter. That clearly blunted C-NS' momentum after it had scored two quick touchdowns to open the third quarter – the first TDs yielded by Lancaster's starting defense since Week 3.
"Coach Rupp gave me a great opportunity to be successful, said Andreessen, who rushed for 149 yards on 11 carries. "He trusted me. That means a lot to me. I just went out and did my best."
The Legends, the second-ranked team in the state, will face defending champion and No. 1 Troy of Section II at 3 p.m. next Sunday at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. Troy defeated Newburgh Free Academy, 20-13, in the other Class AA semifinal Saturday.
Lancaster's win means three Section VI teams will play for state championships Friday and Sunday at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. West Seneca West (Class A) and Maple Grove (Class D) also won this past weekend at Union-Endicott High School. They play in title games on Friday afternoon at the Dome.
The switch to the Tank ignited a Lancaster offense that hadn't scored since the second drive of the first quarter in last week's 9-0 win over Aquinas.
On Andreessen's first carry he gained 4 yards. On his second, he found the end zone on that 43-yard run that pulled his team within two points.
C-NS (11-1) marched from its 38 to Lancaster's 20, threatening to score on a third straight drive, but Brett Beetow picked off a Hayes pass at the 15.
The Legends turned that turnover into the go-ahead touchdown. Andreessen capped the scoring drive with a 20-yard dart of a pass to a wide-open Beetow out of the wildcat to give the Legends the lead for good. Andreessen ran in the conversion to make it 20-14.
"That's a play that we've been practicing all year," Rupp said. "We ran it against Jamestown for a touchdown and we were saving it. They were loading the box to stop Joey so we slipped the fullback past them and he was wide open."
After forcing a turnover on downs, it was Andreessen and the wildcat pounding the defense for gains of 20, 13, 5 and 4 yards with him handing off to Andrew Hersey as well. The drive that started at Lancaster's 30 ended with Andreessen gaining the final 17 yards on two plays – a 15-yard run where he was just tripped up at the last second before getting to the goal line and then him finishing it off with a 2-yard run.
Still, C-NS, which came in having amassed 6,209 yards in total offense on the season, made the Legends sweat it out as Nate Geloff hauled in a 45-yard TD pass with 3:31 left. After forcing a three-and-out, the Northstars had the ball with 2:20 left at its own 24 with a chance to tie.
They got as far as midfield as Max Giordano returned an interception 65 yards for the touchdown that ended C-NS' comeback bid.
A bookend of return touchdowns for the Legends, who opened the game finding the end zone on Kyle Backert's 75-yard kick return.
And now it's off to the Dome for the biggest game of them all.
"This is a huge moment for our program," Rupp said. "We've never been to a state championship so not only is it for 55 guys on the team but it's also for all the town of Lancaster and our alumni."