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Lackawanna can turn heads with a win over Cleveland Hill

A good start to the season doesn’t equate to a return to prominence for a football program with a history of success. It does help a team gain confidence and a sense of belief, though, intangibles that are vital to success over the long run.

With that in mind, does Lackawanna have reason to feel good about itself? Sure it does.

The Steelers, off to a 3-0 start, already have surpassed last season’s win total by one with several weeks to spare. The defense and running game have worked well.

Still, an unbeaten start to the season doesn’t mean Lackawanna is ready to once again take its place with the other top programs in Western New York. A win over a marquee foe like Cleveland Hill could really capture people’s attention.

The Steelers host Cleveland Hill at 7 p.m. Friday at Veterans’ Stadium in a key Class C North contest between ranked unbeatens. Cleve Hill (3-0, 2-0), The News’ No. 5 small school, is the two-time defending division champion and still has players on the team that were part of the state final four team in 2013. No. 7 Lackawanna, 2-0 in the division, has played Cleve Hill thrice the past two seasons, losing all three matchups.

“We’ll see this week if there’s improvement in our program when we play a quality opponent,” Steelers coach Adam Tardif said. “If we can win this game ... we’ll be back to being relevant again.”

The contest is huge, considering the quality of teams jockeying for postseason positions in Class C North. News No. 2 Bennett also is unbeaten in division play and considered the top threat to Cleve Hill’s title reign despite last week’s 27-16 nonleague loss at News No. 2 large school Orchard Park. The Eagles play host to Bennett on Oct. 3.

“This is like a playoff game,” Cleveland Hill coach Glen Graham said of the Lackawanna matchup. “It’ll have that type of atmosphere because we do have three teams that are undefeated in the division.

“The importance of this game for us is if we can manage to be successful coming into the Bennett game, that keeps that a high-stakes game as well. I think for both sides this will have a playoff feel because seeding for the playoffs is an incredibly important thing.”

Lackawanna didn’t make the playoffs last season but did in 2013, where Cleve Hill ended its season.

The Steelers have been on a roller coaster since 2011, making the playoffs one year only to miss the postseason the next. It’s a pattern they’d like to break.

The Steelers have taken steps in the right direction, as an offensive unit featuring four senior linemen – Malik Taylor (RT), KeJuan Harmon (LG/DT), Jordan Diana (LT) and Dante Wright (C) – has done a fine job opening holes for sophomore running back Khalil Horton (28 carries, 479 yards, eight TDs) and junior Jamel Lofton (24-304-4). Wright is ailing and likely won’t play this week, Tardif said.

Harmon and Lofton both average 13 tackles on defense, while Lofton’s cousin, Marquez Lofton, averages 12 tackles.

Cleve Hill is led by do-everything senior Grayson Taylor, who even handles the long snapping on punts. He averages 151 yards rushing and also leads the defense from his inside linebacker spot (15 tackles per game). Junior Matt Eldridge does a little of everything for the Eagles, too. The linebacker (12 tackle per game) is the team’s top pulling and trapping guard on offense and even sees time at fullback in goal-line situations.

“It’s going to have a neat, big-game atmosphere to it,” Graham said. “We’re going to have to contain their athletic kids. … We’re going to have to be at our best to beat this team.”

Also on Friday, first place is on the line in Class B East when old friends Alden (3-0, 3-0) and Depew (2-1, 2-0) battle at the Wildcats’ Constantino Complex. Depew has won the last two meetings in the series after losing the previous seven games to the Bulldogs.

In an intriguing nonleaguer between large public and private schools, unbeaten Timon-St. Jude (3-0) takes a trip to the Southern Tier to face defending state Class AA champion Jamestown (2-1) at Strider Field. In another nonleaguer, Olean visits Bradford (Pa.) for the teams’ annual rivalry game.

In key Class A North battles, Williamsville North visits North Tonawanda, while Grand Island takes on Williamsville South at District Field.

Among Saturday’s top games, unbeaten Starpoint visits rival Lockport for bragging rights, and Canisius puts its 19-game winning streak on the line against tough New Jersey school DePaul Catholic at the Stransky Complex in West Seneca. Orchard Park makes a rare appearance in All High Stadium, where it will face host Hutch-Tech in a 4 p.m. Saturday start in Class AA South.

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St. Francis will hold a ceremony to bless its new synthetic turf field – Polian Family Field – at 10:45 a.m. Friday. Members of the Polian family are scheduled to be in attendance.

The Red Raiders won’t get to play their first game at Polian Family Field until next Friday, Oct. 2, at 7 p.m. when they host three-time defending Monsignor Martin champion Canisius.

email: mrodriguez@buffnews.com

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