No miracles, just history.
South Park’s season-long formula of playing tougher-than-tough defense complemented by a timely, big-play offense worked for the eighth time this season, as the Sparks (8-1) became the first Buffalo Public School program to earn the right to play for a Section VI football championship. South Park punched its ticket to Ralph Wilson Stadium with a 19-10 triumph over a Hamburg Bulldogs crew that finally ran out of miracles this postseason during Friday night’s Class A semifinal.
An estimated 2,000 fans braved rain and cold conditions at All High Stadium to witness this historic event as the physical running of William Burgess and Austin Neal made the Sparks offense purr. The defense, meanwhile, led by Burgess, his twin Willquan and Austin Leonard, made life impossible for the Bulldogs’ offensive playmakers.
South Park will play the winner of this afternoon’s Sweet Home-West Seneca East semifinal at 8 p.m. Thursday for the title.
“It’s an honor,” said Burgess on being the first city school to reach The Ralph.
“It’s just really exciting,” Sparks coach Tim Delaney said. “It’s proving the point of how far city football has come in the last five years of being in the section. As a program we just work extremely hard. … To be the first team to get there is just exciting for everybody.”
South Park won’t be the only former member of the old Harvard Cup league making the trip to The Ralph next week. The winner of this afternoon’s Bennett (8-0) versus Burgard (7-1) Class B semifinal will also be part of championship week at the home of the Buffalo Bills.
The Sparks earned their spot by rushing for 263 yards, led by Burgess’ 107 on 12 carries and Neal’s 106 on a dozen attempts. While South Park had success moving the ball, it limited the Bulldogs – who rallied from deficits of 21-3, 28-9 and 34-24 in earning a 40-34 overtime win at Williamsville South last week – to just 158 yards, including just 109 on the ground.
Hamburg tried to set up its run game with the pass early, experiencing some success on its opening drive that ended with a 37-yard Jason Shuttleworth field goal.
From that point on, though, Leonard made physical statements in the secondary by perfectly timing his hits to break up several near completions. He finished with five breakups.
William (12 tackles, one sack) and Willquan Burgess (12 tackles, two sacks and a fumble recovery) and their teammates shackled Bulldogs running back Mitchell Gomolka.
Gomolka, who ran for 218 yards last week and came in averaging 7.2 yards per carry, finished with 30 yards on 15 carries, including just 4 after halftime.
“They’re fast and they’re physical,” Hamburg coach Pat Cauley said. “They put a lot of pressure on our offensive line. We couldn’t get Mitch going, which we normally do.”
Still, Hamburg looked as if it was about to go into rally mode when it pulled within 13-10 with 5:56 left in the third quarter as Alex Suchan floated a 17-yard TD pass to a wide open Alec Seifer. That was a drive in which the Bulldogs capitalized on a gift late-hit call on a punt return by Suchan. Suchan appeared to slip as he ran out of bounds while the pursuing Spark didn’t touch him, but the officials made the call along the Hamburg sideline.
That’s as close as the Bulldogs got.
A hard 12-yard run by William Burgess two plays later knocked Suchan, who also plays safety, from the game with an ankle injury. Backup quarterback Tom Coyne, who also got dinged up, played the rest of the way.
Daryl Moore made a one-handed catch in the rain in the back of the end zone to make it 19-10 South Park with 7:53 left to close the scoring.
Hamburg took a 3-0 lead on the game’s opening drive as a Suchan to Seifer 35-yard pass play quickly got the Bulldogs (6-3) in Sparks territory.
South Park, with three new starters on the offensive line (Rob Johnson, Andre Walker, Karrington Williams) and two regulars (Matt Tucci and Nyru Jackson) in different spots due to injuries, wasted little time responding to Hamburg’s opening statement. Neal returned the kickoff 49 yards to the Bulldogs’ 41. He capped the 7-play drive with a 1-yard touchdown run after back-to-back rushes of 9 yards.
The Sparks went ahead 13-3 with 2:56 left in the first half on Moore’s 7-yard TD catch, a score set up by a 47-yard run by Neal that got them to the 13.
Still, it took a break for South Park to get the touchdown on fourth and 4 as quarterback Tyree Brown’s 7-yard pass to the back of the end zone went off the mitts of Bulldogs defender Tosh Johnson and was snatched out of the air by Moore.
That was the second significant break to go South Park’s way.
On its previous possession, Brandon Johnson drilled a 59-yard punt from his own end zone, a boot that he just got off and split the two Hamburg returners waiting near South Park’s 45. The Bulldogs did nothing with the possession and a bad punt set up the Sparks’ second touchdown.
Sometimes history makers need a break or two to earn their defining moment.
“It feels great,” said Moore, who caught three passes for 51 yards. “We came out, played hard. Everybody wanted to go to The Ralph, and we came out with it.”