SYRACUSE – When Easton Tanner returned an interception for a touchdown in the fourth quarter to pull Maple Grove within five points, coach Curt Fischer couldn't help but start to think maybe this was the play that would provide the spark the Red Dragons needed to deliver one more comeback triumph during this playoff run.
Alas, Maple Grove didn't have enough left in the tank to complete a final rally.
The Red Dragons achieved their season-long quest of returning to the Carrier Dome but their championship dream fell short against old friend Cambridge. The Section II champions used a strong second quarter and then got a late 9-yard touchdown run from Colton Dean to defeat Maple Grove, 26-14, on Friday afternoon in the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association Class D football final before an estimated 2,000.
A Maple Grove team that usually runs its way to victory got bowled over by a much larger team in this championship game rematch from a year ago. The Indians rushed for 279 of their 465 yards as four different ball carriers rushed for 58 yards or more.
Dean led the way with 18 carries for 78 yards and his second TD gave the Cambridge faithful in the stands reason to start a second-straight championship celebration way earlier than last season. The Indians edged Maple Grove in double overtime last year 22-21 when they secured the crown on a game ending two-point conversion.
Different ending, same feeling.
"It (stinks) to lose," Maple Grove senior linebacker Zak Trim said. "I think they were just a better team."
"That is one big football team," Fischer said. "Their physicality just wore us down in every part of the game. They were just so big. Physically our kids were just getting beat up."
But the Dragons, who rallied for wins in the Section VI final over Franklinville/Ellicottville and last week in the semifinals at Union-Endicott over IV-Tioga, battled nonetheless.
Tanner's 55-yard interception return for a touchdown with 10 minutes, 13 seconds left pulled Maple Grove within 19-14.
But a Cambridge team that used its size and fast-paced no-huddle offense to scored 12 straight second-quarter points after the teams played to a 7-7 first-quarter standoff refused to be denied. The Indians (12-1) marched 68 yards in 14 plays and milked more than 5 minutes off the clock with Dean capping the drive with his 9-yard TD run.
When Tommy English intercepted Tanner at the Indians' 20 on Maple Grove's next drive, the conclusion was all but a formality.
Cambridge seemed like it would roll its foe as it wasted little time seizing control, scoring on the game's second offensive play. Zack Rowland (7 for 10, 186 yards) faked a screen pass and found Brenden Holcomb open in the flat with nothing but daylight in front of him as he raced 65 yards for the touchdown just 41 seconds into the clash.
Maple Grove took a more methodical touchdown drive on its first possession as Tanner and Zach Fischer hooked up on a 5-yard strike on fourth down to cap a 14-play, 80-yard march that milked 6 minutes 22 seconds. Tanner rushed for a 34-yard gain and also completed 3-of-4 passes for a total of 28 yards on the drive.
For the game, Tanner rushed 19 times for 73 yards and completed 10-of-17 throws for 83 yards and a score to go with his pick six.
The Indians seized control in the second quarter as Cambridge capped a 93-yard drive, 10-play march on Dean's 1-yard run. The Indians gashed the Maple Grove defense for gains of 19 (via pass), 15, 11, 11 and 14 yards.
Cambridge tried to add to it on its next drive but it stalled at Maple Grove's 2 as Trim stuffed a fourth-and-goal play from the 1 for a loss. That field position set up the Indians' next possession, which started at the Dragons' 38. It ended with the Indians surging ahead 19-7 three plays later on Tyler Linendoll's 5-yard run.
Maple Grove had a promising drive going to open the third quarter as Nick Fabrizio (75 yards rushing) started it off with runs of 13 and 11 yards. Fischer caught an 11-yard pass but the drive stalled as Max Hoffer bowled over his blocker and sacked Tanner for a 10-yard loss on fourth down in the red zone.
That’s the second of three straight possessions by the Red Dragons to get off to promising starts only to come up empty.
"It was tough to dig them out (due to their size)," said Trim, who also plays offensive line.
While the Dragons didn't leave Syracuse with their third state title in history, Fischer is proud of his team nonetheless as the program does head toward an uncertain future.
While there are several underclassmen expected to be back, the overall projected numbers for next year's edition of the team at the moment stands at 19. That's low even for Class D as the state requires a minimum of 16 players dress on game days.
The numbers could change for the better, or worse, during the offseason.
One thing is certain. While the Red Dragons did not leave Syracuse with their third state title, Fischer is proud of how they finished in a season in which they lost to a Western New York team for the first time in four years.
"It was an amazing season," Fischer said. "You hate to walk away with a loss but there wasn't anybody who thought we'd be here."