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Dunkirk hits playoffs with a plaques-to-the-wall mentality

It’s easy for outsiders to forget that Dunkirk has a history of winning football because until recently, the Marauders have not experienced much success.

To become informed of that successful past, though, all they or fans of the program must do is walk up and down the hallway of the school’s sports wing. It is there where one can see photos of league and Section VI championship teams for all sports, along with Dunkirk’s state qualifiers. Coach Mike Sarratori calls the still images of past great Marauders football teams, especially those from the leather helmet days, “amazing.”

What would be more amazing to him, though, would be if the 2015 edition of the Marauders football team earned the right to have their picture added to the corridor of champions. If that happens, Dunkirk’s special year would have morphed into a championship one during the second season of his second stint at the helm of the program.

Winning a title is the only way for teams to make it on that wall. Since the Marauders, who bring a 5-1 record into the Section VI playoffs, didn’t win their division, you know what that means.

“We just have to win our section and we’ll be up there,” Sarratori said. “We want to make it to The Ralph.”

Dunkirk isn’t the only team that wants to make it to the home of the Buffalo Bills and play for a Section VI football title. There are 38 teams who begin that quest with the start of the tournament Friday. The playoff field will be halved by Saturday night. Franklinville/Ellicottville has a bye into the Class D semifinals since it’s the top seed in a seven-team bracket.

Dunkirk hopes it has some staying power in a ridiculously deep Class B bracket. The fifth-seeded Marauders, who are making just their second Section VI Tournament appearance, face fourth-seeded Burgard (4-3) at 7 p.m. Friday at Riverside High School’s Dingboom Field in a clash between ranked teams. Dunkirk is ranked seventh in The News’ Small School poll.

In a way, the Marauders have been in playoff mode since a Week Five loss at Springville. With members of Class B South playing an unbalanced schedule due to Eden not fielding a team, the division pretty much was only going to get its top two teams in the playoff field unless the third-place finishers in the other two divisions both finished under .500.

That didn’t happen and Dunkirk, which just missed the playoffs last year – when it posted its first winning season since 1994 – made sure its chief rival, Fredonia, didn’t play spoiler to its playoff hopes for a second straight year.

The Hillbillies beat the Marauders in four overtimes last season to deny them a playoff spot. Fast forward to last Friday, Dunkirk beat Fredonia for the first time since 1998 to earn a playoff berth for the first time since 2009.

“We had 365 days to think about that four-overtime loss,” said Sarratori, whose first coaching stint with Dunkirk went from 1990-98. “A couple plays here and there the last time we played them ate away at us. … We waited for that game for a long time. It was not only sweet to beat Fredonia but also to clinch a playoff spot. It’s an amazing feeling.”

That loss in 2014 served as a big off-season training motivator for the Marauders, who graduated a lot of seniors who helped the outfit go 6-3 a year after it went winless in eight tries. The seniors moved on but their work ethic rubbed off on the underclassmen who carried on their work, including Miguel Alicea.

The diminutive senior is perhaps the Marauders’ best player. Alicea, who rushed for 1,500 yards and nearly 5.0 per carry last season, is back to that form after being hobbled by an early-season injury. With the team in must-win mode the last two weeks, he’s averaged 245 yards (100 more than his season average) and two touchdowns per game. He also is perhaps Dunkirk’s most fearless tackler as the 5-foot-9, 160-pounder averages 10 per game at safety.

“Miguel is our main man on offense,” Sarratori said. “We do have other backs we do surprise people with but he’s our workhorse. I’m not afraid to give him the ball. The more he gets the ball the better he is.”

Others, especially on defense who have impacted Dunkirk’s success include corners Jose Morales and Rashad Brown, nose tackle Jonathan Alicea (no relation to Miguel) and Alton Ingram, a hard-hitting linebacker who also serves as Miguel Alicea’s lead blocker. Another fullback/linebacker, Elwin Gomez, is perhaps the strongest player on the team. The Marauders yield just 13.8 points per game, another reason they’re in the playoffs.

Senior quarterback Devonte Lockett has the ability to burn teams with the play-action pass when they stack the box against Alicea.

Sarratori said the community was excited last year when Dunkirk won a consolation bowl.

The frenzy is dialed up a couple notches now that they are in the real tournament. There’s talk of setting up a shuttle bus to take fans to the game Friday.

One would think the hoopla might be distracting to players. On the contrary, Sarratori anticipated this would be the easiest week to coach the players because, despite making the playoffs, they’re not satisfied yet.

This is why players hit the weights in earnest to become stronger once Sarratori returned. This is why they enrolled in all those passing and linemen camps.

Yes, they’re winners now. They have the back-to-back winning seasons to prove that. They’re still hungry, which is a good thing since they are in the tournament that rewards the ultimate winner with a championship plaque.

That would definitely be a picture-perfect moment for the Marauders.