Matt Eldridge still can open holes if the situation calls for it, but that’s no longer the Cleveland Hill senior’s primary responsibility.
It’s his job to run through them.
The former guard has done that very well this season and will get to flaunt his running skills – along with his tackling talents – next weekend at New Era Field.
The Golden Eagles (8-1) are returning to the Section VI Class C championship game.
They punched their ticket to appear at the home of the Buffalo Bills for the 11th time Saturday afternoon by running away from a tough, solid Gowanda/Pine Valley team, 26-6, at Carl J. Kuras Field.
It’s Cleve Hill’s first trip to the final since 2013, and the Golden Eagles are familiar with next Saturday’s opponent. They face a Southwestern team they defeated earlier this season in Jamestown, 44-3.
Three years between championship game appearances doesn’t seem like a long time, but it’s felt like an eternity at Cleveland Hill, which has won six Section VI titles.
“Three years is a long time when you’re waiting to get a once in a lifetime experience,” Eagles coach Glen Graham said. “We’ve been to the semifinals six years in a row. … This group dedicated themselves to getting back this year and I couldn’t be happier for this group of guys.”
Eldridge helped lead the way before an estimated crowd of 1,000.
Both run-dominant teams experienced some tough sledding during the early going. That was expected, along with Eldridge’s ability to break the big one. The 5-foot-9, 230-pound running back came into the semifinal averaging nearly 10 yards per carry.
It was just a matter of when.
When came with 7 minutes, 59 seconds left in the second quarter. Eldridge took a handoff around left end 74 yards for a touchdown to break a scoreless tie.
“We just kept hammering away and eventually we broke through,” said Eldridge, who rushed 12 times for a game-high 148 yards, two touchdowns and shared the team lead with 10 tackles on defense. “I just put my head down and trusted my blockers. I looked up and it was just daylight.”
How is it that a guard winds up being one of the athletes to fill the void for the team’s graduated All-Western New York running back a year after helping paving the way for Grayson Taylor’s 1,655-yard season?
Eldridge is not a converted lineman, as he played running back prior to moving up to varsity as a freshman.
“He was really unselfish the last two years starting at guard for us,” Graham said. “He did a great job but this year we had a little more depth on the offensive line where we could put him back at a position that he’s probably a little bit more naturally suited for.”
Eldridge proved his coach correct, again, in the third quarter on a 29-yard touchdown run around right end that increased Cleve Hill’s lead to 12-0.
Eldridge showed off his speed on defense, too, as he and his teammates limited a Gowanda/PV offense that had averaged 30.6 points per game to just six. They also slowed Western New York rushing leader Kameron Alexander (133 yards on 31 carries).
Alexander’s 18-yard touchdown pulled the Panthers (6-3) within 12-6 with 10:48 left. Cleveland Hill quelled any momentum that provided, however, by scoring 46 seconds later. Quarterback Tyler Phillips knocked the wind out of them with a 62-yard touchdown run up the gut of the defense.
“It was a nice counter,” Panthers coach Sean Gabel said. “Over pursuit. Kids are going to be kids. You tell them all year and all week you have to make sure you play your gaps but (the Eagles are) good. They find that little hole and they exploit it and you’re not catching them.
“That’s why it’s the greatest classroom in the world. There’s no better spot than the football field. Every emotion you’re getting and it could be in a matter of two minutes or 40 minutes.”
Aaron Wahler’s late 4-yard touchdown run capped an Eagles offensive effort in which they finished with 261 yards – all via the rush.
Ammari Wooten also shined on defense for Cleve Hill, finishing with 10 tackles, as the team survived the absence of starting lineman Sam Arrington (illness) and second-leading tackler Ryan Majerowski (injury).
“We had a lot of guys step up to help the defense and the offense all game,” Phillips said.
“They’ve got athletes; there’s no secret about it,” Gabel said. “I thought we did a good job except for a couple plays when they showed us we didn’t do a good enough job.”