The two previous times Maple Grove earned the right to play for a New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association football championship, the Red Dragons entered the biggest game of those respective years relatively healthy.
If Maple Grove is to add to a third championship plaque to its trophy case Friday, it’ll be because they are the ultimate survivors.
Injuries are a part of football, but the dreaded bug has bitten the Red Dragons at perhaps the worst possible time of the season.
The Section VI champions could be without their top offensive star, running back and Connolly Cup finalist Bradley Benson; one of their top linemen, junior Zak Trim and starting quarterback Dalton Dubois when the Red Dragons meet Section II champion Cambridge at noon Friday for the Class D title at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse.
All three have injured ankles, the severities varying as is often the case with the ailment. All three are game-time decisions.
Dubois, the starting quarterback, has missed the last two playoff games since suffering his injury in the Section VI final against Franklinville/Ellicottville. He has been cleared to play by a doctor but had been limited to jogging at practice as of Tuesday. If he can’t go, sophomore Easton Tanner gets his third straight start.
Trim could miss a second straight game.
Then there’s Benson.
Benson could be the biggest potential absence for the unbeaten Red Dragons (12-0), as he has rushed for a team-high 1,557 yards and 30 touchdowns.
Benson suffered an ankle injury during last week’s state semifinal win over IV-Sidney, leaving the game late in the second quarter after getting hurt on a low tackle. He still finished with a game-high 140 yards rushing and three touchdowns.
Benson has also made an impact on defense with 53 tackles and a sack for the Red Dragons. Benson said he’d be ready (and still could be) after last week’s 56-20 rout of Sidney but as of mid-week hadn’t been able to practice, according to coach Curt Fischer.
“It’s just sad,” said Fischer, who is 2-0 in state finals during his 26 seasons. “At first I didn’t think it was that bad by the way he made it sound (last Friday). But then it didn’t go well over the weekend. … We’re just looking at it as next guy up. If Brad can’t go, he’ll just be totally behind everybody.”
How much would Benson’s potential absence impact Maple Grove? He’s got breakaway speed turning the corner and he’s also tough to bring down running inside.
“It changes things a lot, but we’ll do whatever we have to do,” Fischer said.
Of course the Red Dragons will because a title is up for grabs in this showdown between the state’s top two-ranked teams in this classification.
That could mean more playing time and chances to tote the ball on offense for Nelson Nash and Nick Fabrizio.
Both combined for 180 yards rushing last week with Nash running for most of his 110 yards during the second half. He also scored on a pick-six during the Maple Grove’s 42-point first half last week. Fabrizio, a receiver, wound up being an x-factor in that he rushed seven times after having just one carry prior to last week. He finished with a rushing and receiving touchdown.
There’s also senior Trevor Micek. While he has been hobbled by a groin injury as he played more linebacker than running back last week, he still averages 8.9 yards per carry.
Plus, there’s no telling what other wrinkles Fischer might add to catch fellow unbeaten Cambridge (12-0) by surprise. The second-ranked Indians crushed Section I’s Haldane, 61-6, in last week’s other state semifinal.
Injuries or not, it’s still the last game of the season.
Maple Grove will do whatever it takes to not only end its championship drought but also extend Section VI’s streak of at least one team winning a state title to six straight seasons.
“Right now we’re just going to do the best we can do,” Fischer said. “We definitely want to represent the section (well) for sure. We want that win more than anything. We’re working as hard as we can to get it.”