Lancaster looked vulnerable but still overcame its toughest challenges to date: the flu-bug and Williamsville North.
The Legends scored the game’s final 14 points late in the fourth quarter to rally for a 34-26 victory over host North on Friday night.
Gianluca Fulciniti’s 1-yard TD run with 5 minutes, 38 seconds left tied the game at 26. Clarke Whiteside’s conversion kick gave third-ranked Lancaster the lead for good in a clash between the News’ Nos. 2- and 3-ranked Large Schools.
In a game that featured six lead changes before an estimated crowd of 3,000, an ailing Legends crew found the strength to not only overcome a flu-bug that has afflicted half the roster but also a team in the Spartans believed to be perhaps the biggest threat to its title reign.
Though North for the second straight week received sensational efforts from senior receiver Dylan Kelly (four receptions, 128 yards, two TDs), quarterback Joe Nusall (309 yards passing, three TDs) and running back Dylan Mann (107 rushing yards), it wasn’t enough to overcome a Legends team that was at its best making plays with the game on the line.
Jason Mansell had a good passing day (17 for 31, 159 yards, two TDs; four rushes, 65 yards), but made the play of the game with a 41-yard scramble on third-and-17 on the drive that ended with Fulciniti’s score and gave Lancaster the lead for good.
Brandon Wingard scored on a 25-yard run with 1:44 left as North yielded the TD in an attempt to mount a game-tying drive with a timeout in its pocket.
It didn’t work as Fulciniti picked off a pass with a minute left enabling the Legends to extend their winning streak against Western New York opponents to 23 straight games.
“We have something going through the locker room,” third-year Lancaster coach Eric Rupp said. “It looked kind of bleak a couple days ago. … They just sucked it up and played their hearts out.”
“It was a team effort,” said Fulciniti, who also passed for a 17-yard touchdown. “We’re a brotherhood. We all love each other. We’re never going to back down.”
If there’s a game to test Lancaster’s mettle, this one figured to be it -- without throwing in the flu-bug issue.
Williamsville North (2-1) returned most of the players who helped it reach the sectional final last year, while the Legends (3-0) graduated a lot – including four first-team All-Western New York selections.
After North took a 6-0 lead on Scott Hopkins’ short TD run, Lancaster responded with a patient, 14-play drive that ended with Mansell’s 2-yard TD pass to Nick Bigham. Whiteside’s PAT kick made it 7-6.
North went ahead 12-7 on a 55-yard TD catch by Zaire Leonard, but Lancaster took a 20-12 lead into intermission. Nick Castellana’s 11-yard TD catch and Ethan Jurkowski’s 12-yard grab gave the state’s top-ranked Class AA team the lead and reason to believe.
North received TD catches of 52 and 54 yards from Kelly – the latter with 10:38 left to take the 26-20 lead. But the Legends found the resolve to keep pushing back and did so until they went ahead for good.
Conor Mahoney led the Lancaster defense with 17 tackles and 1.5 sacks.
“We attempted to play the strategy game (at the end) but for the most part we beat ourselves,” North coach Mike Mammoliti said. “Jump offsides, stupid penalties. It's stuff that’s curable but frustrating because I think we’re a good football team. We can play better.
“We still have five games left. It’s a long way to go. I think we’ve proved we can play.”
So too has Lancaster.
“It was a total team effort," Rupp said "Jason stepped up and made some plays. Some guys got their first varsity action tonight but credit to them they stepped up and knew what to do.”