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South Park, St. Francis face one last challenge

Tim Delaney did not have to go all Herb Brooks on his South Park football players this week.

That’s because they understand what is at stake. They understand the opportunity at hand at the Carrier Dome at 3 p.m. Friday in Syracuse.

Should the Sparks (11-1) win the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association Class A final over an equally hungry Our Lady of Lourdes of Section I, they not only turn their state championship dreams into reality but also earn one heck of a triumph for the City of Buffalo.

A victory over the Warriors (10-2) means South Park becomes the first city school to capture a state title in football.

“Obviously I think that the streak and all the things Maine-Endwell had will be more special to me and the team as we go forward, but right now it’s about being prepared for the last game we’re trying to win,” Delaney said.

If that winner-take-all game isn’t enough for fans, then they should head over to Grand Island High School’s Gene Masters Field on Saturday afternoon. At 1 p.m., Monsignor Martin Athletic Association champion St. Francis (7-4) takes on state co-No. 1 and New York City Catholic High School League champion Archbishop Stepinac (11-0) of White Plains for the New York State Catholic High School Athletic Association championship.

“It is uncharted waters but our kids are excited about having another game” to play, said longtime Red Raiders coach Jerry Smith of preparing for his first state Catholic final. “They don’t want the year to end because obviously they’re playing well.”

Tickets for that game can be purchased at Gene Masters Field with the ticket office opening 90 minutes before kickoff. Cost is $7.

South Park has been pretty even-keeled throughout its historic run through the playoffs. After putting up 54 points in the Section VI final to become the first Buffalo Public Schools program to win a sectional championship, the Sparks have kept their focus on the next opponent on the schedule because it hit them that they were just three wins away from winning the ultimate prize.

While South Park did score the most impressive and shocking victory of the tournament when it ended Maine-Endwell’s 62-game winning streak last Friday at Cicero, 43-26, the team did not need its coach to borrow or paraphrase any motivational words from Brooks, the 1980 Team USA hockey coach after the Miracle on Ice win over the seemingly unbeatable Soviets. Remember, the U.S. had one game left and weren’t guaranteed a medal, let alone gold, without a win over Finland in the finale.

Different sport, similar situation for the Sparks.

“After the Endwell game, we kind of had a short memory and got over it,” said senior receiver/cornerback David Thomas. “We celebrated a little bit after ending the streak. But now we’ve put that game behind us and are just focused on this one and ready to go.”

“Being able to compete in a state championship is a really big accomplishment,” added Sparks senior quarterback Tyree Brown. “Just knowing the City of Buffalo is supporting us and has our back.”

There has been more attention focused on South Park this week, which included a pre-practice motivational speech from city School Superintendent Kriner Cash during a day that included live updates from a team practice by one television station.

“He told us he was proud of us for representing Buffalo and for bringing the community together,” Thomas said of Cash’s speech. “We’re here for a bigger purpose than just us.”

Unlike most of his teammates, Thomas knows what it’s like to compete and win a state championship as he helped Canisius beat Stepinac in the first state Catholic final ever last season.

As special as that still is to Thomas though, South Park’s run ranks a couple of notches higher.

“It’s just more special to me because we’re playing at the Syracuse Carrier Dome and can be the first public school to do this,” he said.

In order to become the first Buffalo school to win the crown, the Sparks will have to overcome a private school that has opened up many eyes by reaching the state final after being bumped up to Class A by Section I. The Warriors went from downtrodden program to a two-time sectional champion in three seasons in Class B but failed to get past the regional round until this season.

While Our Lady of Lourdes is led by a future Division I-AA quarterback in all-time Section I passing leader Dean Rotger and future Princeton-bound receiver Luke Timm, the Sparks are not getting caught up in that. Like last week, they are concerned about what they must do to win the game because once the game starts Friday that’s the only things that matters.

“We just have to come out fast, physical and put up points,” Brown said.

St. Francis may try to adopt the same approach against a Stepniac team whose only loss in the past 23 games came in last year’s Catholic final to Canisius in Uniondale.

The Red Raiders like to spread foes out and let quarterback Jerry Hickson opt to call pass or run based on the defense. The Crusaders of Stepinac also have a quarterback in Tyquell Fields with the ability to throw it all over defenses.

“They’re very similar to us as far as the offense they run and the defense they run,” said Smith. “It’s going to be one of those games where it’s a lot of spread offense … a lot of throwing. On paper it seems like it’s going to be an exciting game.”

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Another example of it being a small world: Our Lady of Lourdes coach Brian Watson and St. Francis’ Smith are old acquaintances who worked together at various camps in the past.

When interviewed by The News, Watson was informed that the St. Francis coach he worked with at Penn State camps in the past was still coaching the Red Raiders.

Watson has won 240 games during his career, with most of the wins coming during his time as Brewster’s coach. He came out of retirement six years ago to turn around the program at Lourdes. Smith has won 148 games and seven Monsignor Martin postseason championships since 2002 at St. Francis.

email: mrodriguez@buffnews.com

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