One year later, North Tonawanda is back right where it was: a step away from Ralph Wilson Stadium with Lancaster coming to town.
NT can exorcise the ghost it's been chasing for part of the year if it can beat Lancaster in next Friday night's Class AA semifinals. It was Lancaster, thanks in large part to eight NT turnovers, which won last year's semifinal, 10-7.
"It was a disappointing loss last year with the eight turnovers, and we've been stressing that and trying to fix it," said NT coach Eric Jantzi. "We've been doing a pretty good job and hopefully we can continue to do so."
The Lumberjacks' performance Friday night was a familiar one -- flying around on defense, tough to get in the way of on offense, big plays in special teams.
Clarence got off to a bad start with an interception on its first drive while NT cashed in with an Aaron Davis field goal for a 3-0 lead. Then Clarence had something much worse happen as senior standout running back Jack Vogel was lost for the season with a dislocated elbow.
"He's our heart and soul, a three-year starter, and that's a killer -- but that's the game of football," said Clarence coach Tom Goddard. "He's a tough kid - even with the pain he was in, he never batted an eye. That's the hard part of being a coach in football is seeing kids like that. That's your kid down there. But that's football."
Without Vogel, Clarence was forced to the air, where it finished 9 for 30 and was intercepted four times. NT scored 21 points in the second quarter, then added another touchdown on a methodical drive to start the second half for a 31-0 lead.
"Jack is one of our best runners, and we had to go to something different," said Goddard. "You could see we don't have a throwing attack -- we have a running attack. Our big tackle is sick, not to make any excuses. But that took us out of running game. That first series we were moving the ball, and got intercepted. But when Jack went down, that takes a little wind out of your sails. We tried to get back into it but NT is too good and wouldn't let us."
Josh Rawdin finished with 48 yards on 14 carries; Vogel had 12 yards on two carries. Tom Owen caught three passes for 51 yards.
"It hurt them when they lost Vogel because that forced them out of their comfort zone," said Jantzi. "It's a shame to see a great player like that get hurt in a big game -- I hope he's OK."
NT had a very healthy back in senior Brandon McClinsey (106 yards, 13 carries), who set the NT record for touchdowns in a season with 19 when his 11-yard run finished off that nail-in-the-coffin drive to start the second half.
"He's a great kid and deserves everything he gets," Jantzi said of the 5-foot-10, 165-pounder. "He had a super offseason with lifting, and he's very, very strong. Obviously he's fast, but people underestimate his strength sometimes. For him to get the record here tonight at home is a touching moment."
As usual, there were plenty of Lumberjacks in on the victory.
Junior quarterback Mike Tuzzo ran five times for 13 yards, including a great 11-yard touchdown run in which he read the defense brilliantly and kept the ball rather than pitching it. He also showed his arm can be a threat on a touch pass to junior Aaron Davis on a two-point conversion.
Junior Steve Kijowski ran 10 times for 50 yards and a touchdown. Sophomore Joe Montesanti came in to run 12 times for 77 yards and a score. Davis had four carries for 40 yards including a touchdown to go along with his field goal, interception and the two-point conversion catch. NT rushed for 302 yards and threw for 45. The three other interceptions came from senior Dan Schmigel, senior Pat King and senior Kevin Miller.
"These kids work really hard and do everything we ask them to do and they truly love each other," said Jantzi. "This season has been rolling so fast because it's probably the best group in terms of a team that we've had."
"We've got to take it one step at a time," said Davis, "but we're definitely looking to go to The Ralph -- that's been one of our goals since the start of the year."
NT was talking one step at a time, Goddard was looking a little more into the future.
"I wish 'em well," said Goddard, who lost to Lancaster (6-0) and Orchard Park (48-0) in AA South play. "They have the potential to go and knock off that OP team that's riding that wave across WNY."