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Takeaways fuel Orchard Park's return to the Class AA final

Orchard Park playing for a Section VI football championship isn’t one of the constants in life.

It is a pretty regular occurrence, though, and this season is no different.

The Quakers are returning to their home away from home, New Era Field -- the former Ralph Wilson Stadium, for the third year in a row and 21st time overall.

The defending Class AA champions punched their ticket by defeating host Clarence, 34-18, during a busy Friday night of sectional playoff action.

Senior Josh Dahl’s 90-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter proved to be the turning point in this semifinal contest.

It prevented the Red Devils from either attempting a game-tying field goal or potentially surging ahead for the first time. The pick-six opened the flood gates as OP scored 21 straight points to build on its 13-10 halftime advantage.

“It might be the 21st time but it never changes to our players,” said Dahl, a senior who rushed 15 times for 144 yards – scoring on runs of 16 and 62 yards during a three-touchdown performance. “We never think it’s normal. We think it’s a big opportunity. We’re excited. We’re pumped. We’re here as a family and we’re here to win.”

“It’s exciting,” longtime Quakers coach Gene Tundo said. “You’re playing where the Bills play. We love the Bills, we live in that town. … It’s for a championship too. We want to keep going. We want to keep playing there.”

Dahl’s pick six, one of six takeaways by Orchard Park, enabled the winners to seize control for good. On the play, Dahl dropped back into the flat but recognized what was coming and jumped the pass route to the sideline. Instead of the ball landing in the hands of the seemingly open receiver, Dahl snatched Jack Putney’s pass and out ran the only player between him and the end zone with 4 minutes, 26 seconds left in the third quarter.

“I just did my job and read the quarterback’s eyes,” said Dahl, who also made five tackles. “I give all the credit to the coaches. We had our safety cover deep and I covered the flat. It was just a great call by the coach to go in a cover set. I’m really proud of my defense tonight.”

Six different players recorded interceptions, including senior linebacker Solomon Brown – who proved to be a force in recording 15 tackles, including two for losses. But he too had a shot a pick six, coming up just 4 yards shy of the end zone earlier in the third quarter.

“I just read the block wrong,” said Brown, who added that’s the first interception of his life. “I usually don’t get the ball a lot. ... But getting the pick is a great feeling.”

The interception didn’t lead to OP points as the Quakers turned it over on the next play. Still turnovers did lead to 14 points for Orchard Park.

A Dylan Bieler fumble recovery on Clarence’s first possession near midfield led to OP’s first touchdown. The Quakers marched 61 yards in six plays, with Dillon Janca sneaking it in from the 1 after completing three passes for 53 yards on the drive.

Clarence turned a muffed punt by OP into its first points of the game, a 29-yard field goal by Niko Mullen after Noah Corry recovered the loose ball at the Quakers’ 21 with 7:38 left in the second quarter.

OP took the lead for good on its ensuing drive with Dahl rushing it in from the 16 on a drive in which Nico Rapini, who also had an interception, rushed four times for 34 yards.

Clarence pulled within 13-10 with six seconds left in the second quarter when Putney completed an 8-yard touchdown pass to Jared Shalke. Putney, a sophomore with a bright future, rushed for 81 yards on 17 carries and completed 13 passes for 156 yards and two scores. He also threw five interceptions, including four during the second half as Orchard Park did a good job with its defensive coverage.

“We put him in position where we were trying to take advantage of some things but Orchard Park played great pass defense,” Clarence coach Mark Layer said. “They made some plays. Those turnovers are big plays but I have tremendous faith in Jack as a quarterback. He’s a talented kid and his future is extremely bright.”

So too is Clarence's, which has more than half of its current roster returning next season – looking to build on a campaign in which the Red Devils (6-3) won their first division title since winning sectionals in 2010.

But returning to the final wasn’t in the cards. Dahl had a big hand in that as his 62-yard touchdown run and Janca’s 17-yard touchdown pass to Zachary Prince in the fourth quarter sealed a familiar outcome for the Quakers.

Orchard Park will look to win for the 16th time at “The Ralph,” but it won’t be easy against an unbeaten Lancaster crew that advanced with a 35-12 win over Hutch-Tech in the other semifinal. Both teams met in Week Five with the Legends returning a blocked punt for a touchdown in the closing seconds to earn a thrilling 42-35 win at OP.

The Quakers (6-3) believe they’ve improved, though, since ending the regular season with two losses in three games.

“It’s been a long year,” Tundo said. “The kids have worked hard and responded unbelievable the last three weeks. We’ve had a couple tough losses but we’ve improved. ... I’m proud of what they’ve done and how they have acted.”

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