ROCHESTER – One has to hand it to Cheektowaga. The Warriors came into Sunday’s New York State Public High School Athletic Association football semifinal against reigning Class B champion Maine-Endwell as decisive underdogs yet managed to create some exciting moments while going down in fighting fashion at Sahlen’s Stadium.
Of course, those moments don’t make up for mistakes and missed tackles, but for almost one quarter Cheektowaga still found a way to hang close with the Spartans despite not being at its best. Then the Section IV champions pulled away for good in earning their 50th straight win and a spot in next Sunday’s state championship game by trouncing the Warriors, 54-28, before an estimated 1,000.
Quarterback Kyle Balmer, the game’s Most Valuable Player, rushed for 182 of his game-high 206 yards in the first half, including all three of his touchdowns, for Maine-Endwell (12-0). Adam Gallagher rushed for 100 of his 122 yards and his two TDs in the first half and the Spartans made sure the Warriors didn’t find a way to come back by turning a 14-point game late in the second quarter into a 48-20 lead at halftime.
“They’re a tough team to beat,” Cheektowaga coach Mike Fatta said. “Nobody’s done it in three, four years. They bring a lot to the table and they’re hard to stop.”
Yes, they are.
The Spartans, who have won three straight state titles in two different classes, scored six touchdowns that went 39 yards or longer, including a 70-yard run up the gut by Balmer early in a second quarter that saw the teams combine for 48 points. That made it 27-7 after Tyron Lawson had scored 26 seconds earlier on a 1-yard run to get Cheektowaga on the board.
Marshawn Gibson’s 5-yard TD run with 6:31 left in the second quarter made it 27-13. But just when it seemed the Warriors were going to get the defensive stop they needed to don their comeback kids caps one more time, Balmer avoided a sack on third and 12, heaved a pass down the left side that just landed out of the reach of a Warriors defensive back and into the waiting arms of Mike Palmer for a 60-yard score with 4:22 left in the quarter.
“Every time we got close, they just came back and made a play, and that’s what good teams do, and that’s what they did,” said Cheektowaga quarterback Zak Ciezki, who finished 20 for 30 for 262 yards passing with four interceptions and carried 17 times for a team-high 88 yards. “We got down really early and that killed us.”
Cheektowaga didn’t use lack of practice time during the week due to the lake-effect snowstorm that pounded the Southtowns as an excuse for being slightly off Sunday. The Warriors were forced to stay home Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday because schools throughout the Buffalo area closed due to the storm and its effects.
Cheektowaga trailed, 20-0, after one quarter as a promising opening drive ended at M-E’s 30 when Ciezki was picked off by Balmer. That set up a 7-yard TD run by Gallagher. Balmer scored on a 50-yard run on the Spartans’ next possession, Gallagher on a 60-yard run on the next drive as the two scoring drives of the quarter took just five plays.
Still, Cheektowaga kept swinging – just like it did in the Section VI final against Bennett when it erased a 28-7 deficit with a 33-point fourth quarter.
It landed a final haymaker when Ciezki’s 11-yard run pulled the Warriors within 34-20 with 2:41 left in the second quarter. But another long touchdown run by Balmer and a 39-yard pick-six by Kevin Barrett in a span of 16 seconds made sure Maine-Endwell got its state championship date next Sunday at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse against Schalmont of Section II.
“Hats off to Coach Fatta and that team,” M-E coach Matt Gallagher said. “For what they had to go through, they came to play. I’m sure it’s terrible up there and the resiliency of the kids I think showed today for them and they gave us all we could handle.”
“They were a lot better than us,” Ciezki said. “They played very disciplined which helped them out a lot. We didn’t play our best game today but we all tried our best and went down fighting and that’s what I’m happy about. That’s what the coaches are happy about. That’s what the whole team is proud of.”