CICERO – Like so many times this season, Cheektowaga quarterback Eric Bartnik dropped back in the pocket and unleashed a long bomb down the field to an open, streaking receiver.
The vertical shot looked like it had six points written all over it except the ball bounced off the hands of the intended receiver.
Yep. It was that type of day for the Warriors, whose spectacular season came to an end one step short of their goal for the second year in a row.
Unbeaten Section III champion Cazenovia (12-0) handed Cheektowaga its first loss of the season Saturday afternoon, 55-18, during the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class B semifinal at Cicero-North Syracuse High School.
The Warriors, ranked third in the state, had no answers on defense when it came to facing the run-and-pass-by-committee Lakers playing without top running back T.J. Connellan. The No. 1 team in the state amassed close to 500 yards, had four scoring plays of 19 yards or longer and had two quarterbacks, Jake Shaffner and Anthony Veccharelli, combine for seven touchdowns. Shaffner passed for two scores and rushed for two. Receiver Paul McLaughlin finished with four receptions for 94 yards and two scores.
“It wasn’t our day,” Cheektowaga coach Mike Fatta said. “We definitely didn’t execute defensively.
“You want to win every game you play and you are an inch away from getting to the last game. It hurts. You work all the way from January to now to do the best you can. I don’t know if it was our best effort today but as I told the kids, only one team wins their last game.”
Cazenovia hopes to be that team and will return to action at noon next Sunday at the Carrier Dome and play Schuylerville for the state title. II-Schuylerville advanced to the championship game by routing Westlake, 35-0.
The Lakers, who advanced to their first final, pulled away by outscoring Cheektowaga, 34-6, over the middle quarters. Caz put up 21 in the second quarter to turn a 7-6 lead into a 28-12 halftime edge.
The onslaught began with McLaughlin’s 19-yard touchdown catch just eight seconds into the second quarter and ended with Shaffner hooking up with Cole Willard on a 22-yard scoring play with 4:08 left in the third quarter. Shaffner passed for 130 of his 185 yards and two touchdowns in that quarter.
“God bless them,” said Cheektowaga senior defensive lineman Dylan Romanczak, who finished with 10 tackles and two sacks. “Hopefully they finish up strong. Any team that beats us is a pretty tough team.”
Bartnik, the junior who has passed for more than 2,000 yards in his first varsity season, passed for 203 yards, two touchdowns and rushed for 63 yards to lead the Warriors (11-1). But he also committed two turnovers, one of which turned into Caz’s first touchdown. He lost the handle on a scramble midway through the first quarter and five plays later watched as Shaffner scored from the 4 to break a scoreless tie.
Cheektowaga came back and scored on Bartnik’s 17-yard touchdown pass to classmate Stephan Parker. Cheektowaga’s PAT-kick sailed wide. That’s as close as the Warriors got to the lead.
This was Cheektowaga’s second straight state semifinal. The Warriors had hoped a mixture of returnees and rookies could contend for the section title this year. They did that and then some. They seemed like a team of destiny after rallying from a late 16-point deficit to beat Batavia, 43-36, in the regional last week.
The Warriors trailed by 16 at the half and it was hard for one not to think Cheektowaga had the Lakers right where it wanted them. When Bartnik had his first pass attempt of the third quarter picked off, it was clear that a Cazenovia defense that came in yielding just seven points per game would not be denied.
“I just want to thank my brothers for going all out and trying their best all season long,” said an emotional Romanczak. “I just love my brothers.”