CICERO – There’s no denying Dunkirk football has come a long win since closing the book, and burning it, following a winless 2013.
What the Marauders have done since that 0-fer is quite impressive.
• They’ve posted three straight winning seasons.
• They’ve made the playoffs two straight years.
• They won their first Section VI championship.
• They reached their first state final four with a thrilling overtime win in Far West Regionals.
It’s easy to see why the Marauders have been the talk of the tiny town that was the birthplace of late Hall of Fame broadcaster Van Miller.
The 2016 season will be remembered for just how far Dunkirk has come under third-year coach Mike Sarratori.
But Saturday’s 41-8 Class B semifinal loss to three-time defending state champion Chenango Forks will serve as a reminder of just how far it still has to go if it someday wants to play for the title at the Carrier Dome during the final week of the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association season.
A Marauders, who that the power running game, got steamrolled by a Blue Devils team that has earned its reputation as one of the state’s best by subscribing to the ground-and-pound philosophy.
The Devils’ resume includes five state titles, a record 28 state-tournament wins and 13 final four appearances.
Dunkirk bowed to football royalty.
That still doesn’t make the defeat easier to deal with as the sight of disappointed players on and off the field showed. The fact the Marauders were one of four Class B teams playing in games during the penultimate week of the season should make it easier to absorb – in time.
"We have nothing to be ashamed of," Sarratori said. "Our kids will still feel very good about what we’ve done and I’m proud of our kids. … Nobody expected us to be here."
Dunkirk went from a 0-2 start to winning nine straight games – beating favored and previously unbeaten two-time defending champion Cheektowaga for the Section VI crown. The Marauders followed that by stunning Batavia,50-48 in overtime. Batavia had hoped its third straight regional appearance would be the charm to reach Saturday’s contest at Cicero-North Syracuse High School.
Just like the previous two playoff games at New Era Field, the Marauders had plenty of fans among the estimated 2,000 that made the almost four-hour trip to Central New York.
While Dunkirk and state No. 1-ranked Chenango Forks (12-0) share identical run-first philosophies, the maroon and white faithful learned they’re not mirror images of each other.
Forks’ combination of size and speed proved to too much. The Blue Devils scored on each of their first six offensive possessions. They dominated time of possession (15:33 to 8:27) during a first half in which they bolted to a 21-0 lead behind two touchdowns from stud running back L.J. Watson and another from Tim McDonald.
While Forks attempted and completed its only two passes late in the second quarter, those came after it had called 22 straight running plays – none of which were stopped for losses with seven traveling at least 10 yards.
"They were just a little tougher at the line than us," Sarratori said. "You can tell they’re experienced at this level and (playing) in this type of venue."
Watson scored on runs of 18 and 6 yards in the first half and then added touchdowns of 49 and 8 yards in the third quarter to help Forks secure its state record 10th title-game appearance. He finished with 181 yards on 24 carries and also intercepted a pass.
As a team, the Blue Devils rushed for 344 of their 371 yards and limited Dunkirk to 124 rushing and 184 total.
Seventy-eight of those yards came on one play for the Marauders. Dontrell Clemons’ touchdown run with 5:01 left foiled Forks’ shutout bid - a nice final highlight for Dunkirk (9-3) in a season full of them.
"We started off three years ago with nothing going; this is a big step," Sarratori said. Chenango Forks "was very solid fundamentally. That’s what we have to strive for. We’re getting there."
The loss means it’s the end of the road for the team’s seniors, including Alton Ingram, Evon Hernandez, Andrew Vetter, Elwin Gomez and Chauval Black. They’re among the many players who helped turn Dunkirk from a winless outfit to a state semifinalist.
"It’s more unreal us making it this far than us losing," said Gomez, who finished with 11 tackles. "They were just that split second faster than us or that little inch stronger than we were. They were just the better team tonight."
Sarratori on coaching the seniors for the last time: "It hasn’t hit me yet. This is their program. They’re like sons to me. I couldn’t have asked for a better group."