Cheektowaga unior quarterback Eric Bartnik was a spectator last season – watching Zak Ciezki and Marshawn Gibson make the plays that lit up scoreboards during the program’s run to the state semifinals.
Now he’s not only a reason the Warriors are still lighting up opponents but also a reason why the next class is following in the footsteps of its predecessors.
The reigning Section VI Class B champions earned a chance at defending their title at the home of the Buffalo Bills. as the News’ No. 1 Small School won the battle between unbeatens by taking down third-ranked Springville, 50-22, Friday night in a huge semifinal clash.
As estimated crowd of 1,500 watched the Warriors turn a close game into a rout in a span of just over eight minutes, covering the second and third quarters, as they used their speed and elusiveness to turn a one-point game into commanding 28-6 advantage they never relinquished.
Bartnik overcame two early interceptions and finished with five total touchdowns as he completed 11-of-20 passes for 278 yards and three scores and rushed 10 times for 177 yards to help Cheektowaga (9-0) advance to Thursday’s Section VI Class B final at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The Warriors defense found a way to slow down Springville’s lethal triple-option offense long enough until their own playmakers seized control.
“It feels great,” said Bartnik, who scored his team’s final two touchdowns on rushes of 54 and 62 yards. “I was on the sideline last year. Just seeing how close the team was last year and knowing we’re doing the same thing and we’re winning games, that’s phenomenal.”
“We got a good team win today,” said classmate Stephan Parker, who caught the Hail Mary pass at the end of last year’s Sectional final that enabled the Warriors to beat Bennett. “Everybody played their part. It feels great to get back there.”
Cheektowaga faces Burgard to open Thursday’s championship game doubleheader at 5 p.m. The Bulldogs advanced to their first Section VI championship game by blanking top-seeded Alden, 14-0. During the season, Cheektowaga defeated Burgard, 22-8, in one of the Warriors’ closer games of the season.
Many figured Friday’s contest would be difficult for Cheektowaga. For nearly a half it was as the Warriors turned the ball over twice on their first three possessions, including once at their own 22. They didn’t let Springville (8-1) score on either of those takeaways.
With Cheektowaga nursing a one-point lead, it seized control first on an innocent looking screen pass from Bartnik to Tyree Billingslea. Billingslea, who rushed for 129 yards and two touchdowns and caught three passes for 77 yards, made one guy miss and had nothing but room to run as he took it 34 yards to make it 13-6 with 6:44 left.
Just when it seemed Springville would escape into halftime just down one score, Parker broke the Griffins’ hearts, taking a wide receiver screen 47 yards to the house with 18 seconds left in the half.
“He’s just a shifty player,” Bartnik said of Parker. “Every time he gets the ball in his hands, he’s going to make a play. He’s a great ball player.”
Bartnik and Keith Weekley connected on a 58-yard touchdown strike down the left sideline just 1:28 into the third quarter and just like that, a close game turned into a rout.
Parker did his damage in the first half, catching five passes for 105 yards and a touchdown as Cheektowaga had perhaps its best offensive performance of the season in amassing 600 yards.
“We don’t have many weaknesses on offense,” Warriors coach Mike Fatta said. “We’re very fortunate in that if they take someone away we can go another direction equally with an explosive athlete.”
Their defense took option plays away from the Griffins, who still did damage in the run game as Ian Baker rushed for 221 yards and three touchdowns as Springville amassed 390 yards in offense.
It didn’t take long for Springville to open the scoring. It took the Griffins just 1 minute, 18 seconds as Baker, who rushed for 196 yards in last week’s quarterfinal win, took it to the house up the gut from 56 yards out to give the guests a 6-0 lead.
Think that was fast? It took the Warriors just 1:03 to tie it up and take the lead. Billingslea capped a five-play, 70-yard drive with a 2-yard TD run. Cheektowaga took the lead for good on Anthony Grabp’s extra-point kick. Bartnik passed for 64 yards on that drive with Parker catching two balls for 41 yards.
Springville picked off two passes on as many Warriors’ possessions after that, but failed to turn those takeaways into points. That was the Griffins’ window of opportunity. Cheektowaga closed it.
“It was probably the best team win we’ve ever been a part of … just every one pitching in,” Fatta said.