Cheektowaga earned some R&R on Saturday night: Redemption and a trip to The Ralph.
The Warriors did that by relying on the running of Marshawn Gibson, the accurate passing and spot rushing of quarterback Zak Ciezki and a revamped bend-but-don’t-break defense to beat rival Maryvale, 26-21, in a Section VI Class B semifinal at Cheektowaga.
An estimated 1,500 braved the cold Saturday night to see Cheektowaga earn its first trip to a sectional final since winning the title in 2009 and bounce back from a humbling 35-6 loss just two weeks ago to the same Flyers crew.
The Warriors (7-2) will face unbeaten News No. 1-ranked small school Bennett (9-0) for the championship at 4 p.m. Friday at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
“I didn’t realize until after the game the kids were really upset they were the first team to lose to Maryvale in 14 years,” Cheektowaga coach Mike Fatta said, “They were talking about that all week more than the meaning of the game.”
Unlike the last meeting between the teams in which Cheektowaga committed six turnovers, the Warriors did a great job protecting the ball. They also limited the Flyers to just 142 yards rushing – a spit in the bucket compared to the more than 500 yards yielded back in Week Seven.
A big reason for that was focusing on stopping the main play Maryvale hurt them with over and over again. The other key to the Warriors’ success was the return of four players who were academically ineligible two weeks ago.
Cheektowaga, ranked sixth among small schools, wasted little time taking a 7-0 lead. The Warriors marched down the field with the opening kickoff as Gibson ripped off runs of 19, 23 and 18 yards. Ciezki capped the drive with a 4-yard pass to Hakiem Black just 2 minutes, 49 seconds into the game.
“The whole week my whole mentality was 5 yards and 10 yards a pop so I just went all out,” said Gibson, who finished with 126 yards on 25 rushes and added 62 yards receiving and a touchdown.
Maryvale (7-2), ranked fourth, fumbled an exchange on its second play to give the ball back to the Warriors at its own 45. Ciezki ended the 12-play drive with a 1-yard touchdown run.
Gibson proved to be a perfect decoy on Cheektowaga’s third touchdown even though he was expecting the handoff. He didn’t receive it but still got tackled by a few defenders who thought he had the ball. Instead, Ciezki took off on a play-action fake around left end, scoring virtually untouched on the 37-yard gallop to make it 20-0 with 8:39 left in the second quarter. Ciezki completed 10-of-15 passes for 101 yards and two scores and rushed for 71 yards and a touchdown.
But Maryvale, which was seeking its first trip to The Ralph since 2006, went down swinging and landed a jarring blow just 17 seconds later as quarterback Eric Graham and Kwaine Davis hooked up for a 66-yard touchdown down the right sideline.
The Flyers gave the Warriors’ faithful reason to fret in the fourth quarter, scoring twice in a span of 4:27 to make it a five-point game.
After Kyle Melber tipped a punt, giving Maryvale possession at Cheektowaga’s 37, a Graham to Andrew Crombie 29-yard pass play set up Raheem Doyle’s 7-yard TD run to make it 26-14 with 8:01 left.
The Flyers pulled within five on Marcus Ford’s 4-yard run, but they failed to recover the onside kick although the chopper was there for the taking.
“They’ve got a great team. We were lucky to get out alive,” Fatta said.