Orchard Park found out that the other half of Webster is pretty good at football, too.
Webster Thomas made big plays on offense and was tenacious on defense as it won a hard-tackling battle with the Quakers, 28-7, in Saturday night's Class AA Far West Regional to advance to its first state semifinal in the program's three-year history. A crowd of 3,027 in Ralph Wilson Stadium -- which brought the total attendance for the four-game session to 10,953 -- watched Thomas use a 14-point third quarter to distance itself from the Quakers.
OP (9-2) was playing in its first regional since 2001, when OP lost to Thomas' crosstown rival, Webster Schroeder. The 2001 season ended with the first of two back-to-back state championships by Webster Schroeder; 2001 was also the year Webster Thomas reopened, with a varsity football program starting the next year.
Thomas (11-0), which ousted Schroeder in the Section V playoffs, moves on to the Class AA state semifinals at 2 p.m. Saturday at Syracuse's Carrier Dome. The Titans' opponent will be Syracuse's Christian Brothers Academy (11-0), which beat Binghamton, 48-16, Saturday in a Central Regional game in the Carrier Dome.
Orchard Park, ranked 13th in the state, grinded out a 7-7 tie with No. 3 Thomas after the first half, but Thomas quickly gained control of the game after halftime thanks to a 37-yard touchdown pass play and a 72-yard punt return.
"We played a real good first half and we were feeling good because we were moving the ball pretty well," said Orchard Park coach Gene Tundo. "But they made a couple big plays in the second half. That punt return killed us."
It took Thomas just four plays on its first possession of the second half to score, as junior Nick Marino reeled in a pretty spiral from senior Joe Zaccardo for a 37-yard score. The ball hit Marino perfectly just as he strode behind a defender into the left side of the end zone.
Orchard Park battled to the Thomas 16 on its next drive, but a field goal attempt by Brian Lalley went wide left with 5:32 left in the third.
OP had to punt on its next possession, and Zenkel changed the momentum of the game with his return. Zenkel ran into a nice lane created by his coverage, sped to the left sideline and evaded a diving attempt at a tackle by punter Matt Soloman before coasting down the sideline.
Zenkel, who also had seven tackles, was named the game's defensive MVP. Offensive MVP Zaccardo completed 10 of 23 passes for 161 yards and ran 76 yards on nine carries.
Forced to play catchup for the second half, OP drives ended in incompletions or interceptions. The Titans added another score when Zaccardo ran in from 15 yards out on a quarterback draw with 4:28 left in the game.
In the first half, Webster took the lead behind 5-foot-10, 180-pound senior Tyler Scaccia (12 carries, 62 yards), a quick running back who threatened to break a long run whenever he got the ball. On their last possession of the first quarter, a Zaccardo pass to Marino and a Scaccia run moved Webster to the 4, where Scaccia took a handoff to the left side and leaped over a tackler into the end zone.
OP responded behind passing of junior Matt Ciambella (15 of 33, 145 yards, three interceptions), who had four completions on an 11-play drive, including a nifty 6-yard pass to Jordan Blair while falling to the ground on what seemed to be a certain sack. A few plays later it was fourth-and-1 at the 19, and senior running back Andrew Pace (25 carries, 99 yards) charged through a pile to get the first down, then kept his legs churning as he bounced to the right side and outran tacklers to the end zone for a 7-7 tie.
Jason Weber and Jordan Jachimowicz each had five tackles for OP.
"We were pounding away at them, getting our 3, getting our 4 (yards) and I thought we were getting the best of that battle," said Tundo. "It really came down to those two huge plays."