Southtowns lads have a reputation for being tough, resilient and having a refuse to lose attitude, but Hamburg took all those qualities to another level Friday night.
The Bulldogs turned mission impossible into a reason to think they just could just go all the way to Ralph Wilson Stadium in this Section VI Class A football tournament as they rallied from deficits of 21-3, 27-9 and 34-24 to pull the rabbit out of their collective hats in earning a 40-34 overtime win over a shocked and disappointed Williamsville South crew before nearly 2,500 at District Field.
Down three with no timeouts at their own 17 and 1:01 left in this quarterfinal, the Bulldogs marched down to South’s 20 and had legitimate chances to win it in regulation before junior Jason Shuttleworth drilled a 37-yard field goal as time expired to tie things at 34-34.
After Hamburg’s defense forced a four-and-out on the Billies’ overtime possession, the third-seeded Bulldogs needed to run just three plays to pull out the win, as senior running back Mitchell Gomolka capped his big rushing day by driving into the end zone from the 2 to spark a wild celebration by the purple and white and their faithful.
Do you believe in miracles?
“I definitely do,” said Gomolka, who rushed for 165 of his 218 yards after halftime. “Down by almost 20 at half, and we came back to win.”
“We were surprised,” said Alex Suchan, who completed 9-of-17 passes for 220 yards and a touchdown and rushed for two 1-yard TDs. “We came out with a fight. We were down 21-3” at halftime. “They didn’t expect us to fight like that.”
The Bulldogs didn’t give anyone reason to believe. South scored on its first four possessions and looked unstoppable with quarterback Sam Castronova making plays with his arm and legs as the Billies quickly rebounded from last week’s 48-13 beatdown at Sweet Home.
It was on Hamburg’s first possession of the second half (the Bulldogs deferred after winning the coin toss) where it announced it wasn’t going quietly into the night. The connection of Suchan and Sean DeLellis hooked up on a 53-yard touchdown on the second play of the quarter to pull within 21-9.
South made it 27-9 on its next possession on Castronova’s 1-yard touchdown, but the Bulldogs gave the Billies a reason to start sweating 30 seconds after that score. Gomolka’s 74-yard run set up Hamburg at the 1 and Suchan capped the 2-play scoring drive with the TD. The two-point conversion run by Alec Seifer made it 27-17 with 6:01 left in the third.
Hamburg wasn’t done scoring in that period. The Bulldogs pulled within three on another Suchan 1-yard run with 1:10 left in the quarter as a 32-yard pass to DeLellis set them up at the 1. DeLellis finished with four catches for 144 yards.
South made it 34-24 with 8:41 left on Castronova’s second 1-yard TD run.
Castronova was sensational Friday as he passed for 307 yards and two touchdowns, rushed for 68 yards and two scores and caught the game’s first TD on a 5-yard halfback option play.
The senior’s efforts weren’t enough to ward off the Bulldogs.
“You have to close that game out,” South coach Kraig Kurzanski said. ”To their credit, they made plays when they had to. The kicker made a great kick with no time left. We didn’t get it done in overtime.”
Hamburg pulled within three on Gomolka’s 4-yard TD run with 4:42 left.
South drove to the Bulldogs’ 17 and had fourth and 1. The Billies ran a counter with Jeremy Spitzburg that Hamburg stopped just short with just enough time left on the clock to ruin South’s day.
The Bulldogs did just that. Two plays after a 14-yard gain on third down kept hope alive, Suchan hit DeLellis in stride down the right sideline as he had a step on the coverage and pulled in the 39-yard catch to give Hamburg first down at the Billies’ 20 with an eternity, 24 seconds, left on the clock.
“I knew we had the confidence to put a drive together there,” Suchan said. “We had full trust in everyone that we weren’t going to lose this game.”
Before Shuttleworth tied it, the Bulldogs saw three chances at the win fall just incomplete with the closest coming on a second-down throw to Ian Chavanne. The ball was on the money and in the receiver’s hands but a great effort by South’s Matt Foster and Niahjel Hunley jarred the ball loose before his feet touched the ground in the end zone. giving the Billies hope.
But it was faint hope, since hope was too busy helping carry the Bulldogs to victory, and a semifinal date with either South Park or Starpoint next week.
“It was something else,” said Shuttleworth, who also made a 30-yard field goal in the first half. “It was probably one of the best moments of my life. I couldn’t do it without the offense or the defense. I needed to make it for the seniors.”
“Once they made a few plays, they just had it in their heads they weren’t going to be denied and they pulled it out,” Hamburg coach Pat Cauley said.