Donte Ridgeway recognized what was coming right away. The ensuing big play he produced in a key moment led to many more by South Park, which once again finds itself part of football's Championship Week.
Ridgeway's 70-yard interception return midway through the second quarter broke a scoreless tie and provided the jolt the Sparks needed to run away from West Seneca East, 36-6, Friday night in a Section VI Class A semifinal.
An estimated crowd of 2,000 at All High Stadium watched these league rivals gather once again for another big game. For the fourth time in six meetings, South Park emerged victorious as Ridgeway's pick six was one of four takeaways by a defense that came within seconds of posting its second straight shutout.
The Sparks' Jayon Renfro also blocked a punt that led to a TD, but the interception provided a vibe that extended to the offense, which put the Trojans away by scoring on its first three possessions after halftime to secure South Park's third Section VI championship game appearance in four seasons.
"That interception came at the right time," senior lineman Jeremiah Sanders said. "From there our offense just got to it, our defense stepped up a little more. It definitely brought a spark to the team and gave us a big push."
The Sparks (9-0) face fellow unbeaten and co-Class A South champion West Seneca West at 6:30 p.m. next Saturday at New Era Field for the title. West advanced with a semifinal win over Iroquois on Friday night.
South Park's advancement to the final also extends the Buffalo Public Schools football program's streak of at least one team reaching it to Championship Week to four in a row.
Last year, Bennett won the Class A title. Two years ago, the Sparks became the first former Harvard Cup member to win a Section VI championship – beating West Seneca East in the final, en route to the state title.
"I think obviously we had a lot of carryover from 2014 to 15 but this is pretty much a whole new group of kids," Sparks coach Tim Delaney said of returning to the finals. "We're a young team. It's great to get back. Obviously we're not thinking about just being back, we're thinking about playing against a good football team and trying to get a W. For the program overall, it just shows we've built it to this point where our expectation is to always play well in the playoffs."
The Sparks' defense has played phenomenal during the postseason.
Fittingly it opened the scoring with 5 minutes, 58 seconds left in the first half. With West Seneca East (5-4) looking to convert a fourth-and-8 in Sparks country, Ridgeway knew the Trojans were going to attempt a quick outside pass to the receiver. The ball never reached its intended target because Ridgeway jumped the route, returning the interception untouched.
"I watched a lot of film on that play," said Ridgeway, who also recovered a blocked punt. "When I saw it I just went for it. … Coaches told us to start forcing them inside. I saw it and I took off.
"It started us off. It started us off to where we got now. We got the W. This group, once we get going we just keep going."
The Sparks did, blunting another East potential scoring march on its next drive when Justin Johnson recovered a fumble two plays after a nifty hook and ladder for 30 yards involving brothers Jared and Jacob Maurino got the Trojans to South Park's 30.
Two kickoffs that sailed out of bounds to open the second half helped give the Sparks great field position (and opening) they needed to expand their lead. They did just that when quarterback Deabeyon Humphrey threw a 23-yard swing pass to Clarence Thomas for a touchdown to cap a 36-yard drive. Humphrey (7 for 12 passing for 139 yards) tossed his second TD on the Sparks' next drive when Dayquan Anderson (two catches, 77 yards, one interception) made a leaping 25-yard touchdown catch between a couple defenders.
Latrell London (nine carries, 150 yards) followed with touchdown runs of 13 and 65 yards. The latter had the potential to be a cherry on top of a sundae-type of score. He started celebrating a little early before crossing the goal line with 3:18 left. The TD counted but he was whistled for unsportsmanlike conduct, his second such penalty for the game. As a result he was ejected and must sit out the Sparks' next game.
Delaney doesn't think London deserved the second penalty.
"It was absolutely an awful call," Delaney said. "I have literally watched a number of different players run across the goal line like they're breaking the tape on sprint and we get flagged for it. He didn't taunt. He didn't turn. He didn't point the ball. I don't understand."
That was the only downer for the Sparks. While most of the faces have changed for the team, a familiar one is thrilled he gets the chance to participate in another championship game at the stadium formerly known as "The Ralph."
"This is a little more exciting now because I'm a senior," said Sanders, a key member of the 2015 state-title winner. "I always had a vision that I would make it back there. … I'm very happy with my team. I'm happy to be back."