It wasn’t just the football season that was on life support at halftime for Bennett.
So too was the school’s athletic identity because once the Tigers play their final game, the traditional Bennett name disappears, since the school's final senior class graduates next spring.
Led by their senior stars, the Tigers not only made sure the Bennett name remained alive and well for another week, but also their Section VI championship dreams.
The Tigers found their mojo in a big way during the second half of their Class A quarterfinal clash against Grand Island. They scored four touchdowns after the intermission to rally for a 24-7 triumph over the No. 4 seed from the North Division.
An estimated 1,000 braved the rain and cold Friday night at All High Stadium to see this contest. The Bennett faithful didn’t have much to cheer about early as the Class A South champions struggled to tackle, defend the pass and sustain drives on offense.
An inspired Bennett team didn’t waste any time getting a rise out of its fans during a third quarter in which it churned out more yards on its first drive (56) than it did the entire first half (44). Senior running backs Isaiah McDuffie and Jamel Lofton took turns gashing the Vikings defense for big chunks of yards, as each scored two touchdowns.
Bennett rushed for 206 yards on 26 attempts during the second half – with McDuffie collecting 102. He rushed for a game-high 142 yards.
Senior linebackers Marcelus Toliver and Nigel Robinson delivered momentum-turning plays that frustrated Grand Island and led to scores by the Tigers. They advanced to the semifinals for the third year in a row, each time in a different classification.
“Those kids came out today and fought for each other and I think that’s what they’re finally realizing. If this is going to be our last hurrah, let’s do it for each other,” said coach Steve McDuffie, who led Bennett to runner-up finishes in Class B and Class C the past two seasons. “I think they grew together as a team and got a little bit closer.”
“Coach told us we weren’t playing up to our potential and our greatness,” said Lofton, who scored on runs of 9 and 27 yards. “We knew we had to play better and play up to our potential in the second half. I just want to thank my O-linemen for opening holes and my D-linemen for plugging those gaps.”
Bennett is one of the schools being rebooted by the Buffalo Public Schools as initial plans to phase out the school changed. It admitted freshmen for the first time in three years last September, but the rest of the traditional high school's athletes play on merged teams with Middle Early College.
How an athletics identity will be packaged in at the new Computer Academy of Technological Sciences program at Bennett is still under discussion by the district.
Only the present matters to the football team.
Lofton, who earned all 94 of his yards on 10 second-half rushes, capped a nine-play drive to open the third with his 9-yard TD to start the scoring blitz. An unsportsmanlike penalty enforced on the conversion resulted in a failed two-point conversion pass.
Grand Island seemed unfazed by the score, as Will Hughes returned the ensuing kickoff 47 yards to Bennett’s 33. Three plays later, Toliver picked off a Connor Buzby pass to give the Tigers a drive start at their own 41.
Isaiah McDuffie rushed seven times on the next drive for 51 yards. McDuffie capped the possession with a 1-yard touchdown four seconds into the fourth quarter.
Bennett’s defense then forced a four-and-out at Grand Island’s 43 with Robinson, who was a tackling machine Friday, stopping Jim Thorpe for no gain on a fourth-and-1 play.
Four plays later, McDuffie scored again, with Lofton producing the big gain on that drive with a 37-yard run in which he wisely bounced outside where there was plenty of space.
“That was a huge stop by Nigel,” Steve McDuffie said. “Nigel’s one of those kids who has been in the program for five years. He’s worked hard at his craft. … Nigel’s play was huge and I think that was the play that broke their back.”
It finished off Grand Island (5-3), which mixed the run and pass effectively during a first half in which it took the lead during the second quarter on Thorpe’s 3-yard run. That was set up by a fumble recovery at Bennett’s 46 by Buzby.
GI missed an opportunity to potentially go up 14-0 late in the second quarter when a promising drive stalled in the red zone when a bad snap resulted in a 16-yard loss on third down.
“We just didn’t have energy in the second half,” Grand Island coach Dean Santorio said. “It was kind of like we didn’t have an edge, which was frustrating because it’s 7-6 and we were winning the football game. … I’m disappointed in that but I tip my hat to Bennett. … We got caught on our heels a little bit in the second half. They ran the ball extremely well in the second half.”
The Tigers (6-2) look to keep that going next week when they host the No. 2 seed from the North Division, North Tonawanda. NT advanced with a 20-16 win over Iroquois.
Reaching the semifinal round is a great feat, but that’s not Bennett’s ultimate goal.
“We have a lot of seniors. … We don’t want to leave early,” Isaiah McDuffie said. “We want to get as far as we can.”