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Nice weather’s a bonus for high school playoff teams

It was during Rich Robbins’ ride home Monday night from a local television studio that it hit the Canisius football coach like a punishing jolt from a linebacker.

At the same time last year, he worried whether he’d be able to get home because there was more than a foot of snow already on the ground as he drove through the beginning stages of the November storm.

To say the journey was daunting is an understatement, but fast forward to this past Monday night …

“I drove home with my windows down,” said Robbins. “It was really different.”

He’s not the only area coach to notice what a difference a year makes while preparing their respective teams for their biggest games of the season.

“We were out there” Tuesday “before the sun was down working out in shorts,” said Cheektowaga coach Mike Fatta. “Last year we had a walkthrough in the gym on Monday and that night we got hammered. We didn’t see the kids again until Friday night.”

Barring any unforeseen catastrophes (or lightning), no games should be delayed because of a weather event. Aside for some really windy days, Mother Nature has been rather tame this month. Canisius and Cheektowaga are among the teams hoping that trend continues through the weekend.

The Crusaders (8-2) return to Ralph Wilson Stadium at 6 p.m. Thursday trying to win their fourth straight Monsignor Martin Athletic Association playoff championship when they line up against St. Francis (6-4). The winner plays for the New York State Catholic High School Athletic Association championship at 1 p.m. Nov. 28 at Grand Island High School against either Westchester’s Archbishop Stepinac or Cardinal Hayes of New York City.

Cheektowaga (11-0) and South Park (10-1) resume their quests for their first New York State Public High School Athletic Association championships during final four weekend at Cicero-North Syracuse.

South Park faces four-time defending state champion Maine-Endwell (11-0) of Section IV at 8 p.m. Friday in a Class A semifinal. Cheektowaga hits the field for a 3 p.m. game Saturday against Section III champion Cazenovia (11-0).

First up is the All-Catholic final and all parties involved are happy the game will be played on time.

Last year, Canisius and Bishop Timon-St. Jude needed to wait nearly 10 additional days to play their final – a game that had to be moved from Ralph Wilson Stadium to All High Stadium. The state Catholic final also got pushed from the last Sunday in November to the first Sunday in December because of the storm that dumped more than 7 feet of snow in parts of the area, trapping people in their homes and on area roadways.

Robbins remembers taking Canisius players who also lived in the Northtowns with him to Orchard Park so that they could attempt to shovel out their trapped friends and teammates.

“It was all about making sure people were surviving,” Robbins said.

This year it’s all about making sure his Crusaders survive to defend their state title. He admits it’s good that the team can just focus on football with no other distractions.

Robbins said the players aren’t happy with their performance last Friday even though they won their semifinal clash, 7-6, over rival St. Joe’s.

Canisius’ offense found a way to string a good drive together to produce the touchdown and extra point it needed to avoid the upset. But the Crusaders still expect to play better than they did last Friday.

“The kids weren’t happy with how they played,” Robbins said.

St. Francis is making its first final appearance since 2011 and had a night workout under the lights earlier this week. Longtime coach Jerry Smith is much happier preparing for a game instead of shoveling.

“It’s fantastic,” he said.

It’s a mutual feeling expressed by South Park pilot Tim Delaney.

He’s gone from being trapped in his South Buffalo home to preparing his Sparks for the toughest challenge of their lives. South Park faces a Maine-Endwell program that has won state titles in both Class A and B during its New York record 62-game winning streak.

South Park has already made history by becoming the first Buffalo Public Schools program to win a Section VI football championship. It added another first by advancing to the state semifinals via last week’s 20-7 regional win over Section V champion Brockport.

Can the big-play Sparks do the unthinkable and take down Goliath? “Nothing they’ve done or we’ve done to get to this point will matter once we kick off,” Delaney said. “We know they’re a good team. We’re just going to try to execute our game plan to win the game and move on.”

Aside from being able to put points on the board, the Sparks will need to play disciplined defense as they face a triple-option offense that when it is running smoothly can make even the best of teams look foolish.

“It’s just an offense we haven’t played against a lot,” Delaney said. “If we can get them out of their triple option then maybe we can get them to play the football we’re familiar with.”

Cheektowaga showed its resiliency last Sunday in its comeback 43-36 win over Batavia in Far West Regionals. The Warriors scored the game’s final 23 points over an 18-minute stretch to remain unbeaten and keep hope alive for the state title. They overcame an official’s mistake that had a TD taken away from them only to see Batavia score two plays later. Yet that didn’t matter as senior Tyree Billingslea (210 rushing yards, three touchdowns) and junior quarterback Eric Bartnik (26 for 32, 310 yards, 1 passing, 2 rushing TDs) led a furious rally that has the Warriors thinking this might just be their year.

“We’re in a good place, I think,” Fatta said. “Normal week of practice this week is a bonus compared to last year.”


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