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Pioneer runs through Cheektowaga in battle of top-ranked teams

This story has been updated.

As Mike Rigerman galloped across the goal line for a fourth touchdown, his Pioneer teammates on the sideline thrust their index fingers in the air.

“We’re No. 1, baby,” one proud Panther proclaimed.

Rigerman rang up 248 yards and running mate Tyler Ely set a school record with his 99-yard touchdown as Pioneer overpowered Cheektowaga 33-14 late Friday night at Gerald J. Hickson Stadium in a battle of unbeaten teams ranked atop the Western New York small schools poll.

The Panthers improved to 4-0 for the first time since 2012 and rode the long bus ride back to Yorkshire as the front-runner in Class B-1 with a tiebreaker advantage over the Warriors (3-1), sectional champions and state semifinalists last season who entered their homecoming game ranked No. 4 in the state in Class B and No. 1 in WNY.

“We came out and showed everyone who we are as a team, that we are not the team everyone underestimated,” Rigerman said. “We didn’t have any pressure on us this whole week. Nobody thought we would win, and we just had the mental mindset to have fun and play like we’ve been playing and we should come out with a win.”

Pioneer was ranked No. 2 locally and No. 14 in the state after last week’s win against Maryvale, the team Cheektowaga outlasted in overtime of the sectional finals last season.

“We have the championship in mind,” Ely said. “We just have to keep pushing and keep working toward it.”

Ely’s 99-yard dash early in the second quarter — preceded by Nick Rinker’s leaping interception to save a touchdown and sprung by Rigerman’s lead block — was the first scoring play allowed by Cheektowaga’s defense after 13 shutout quarters.

“He’s what sparked us to do great tonight,” Rigerman said. “It’s a special night for him, a great night for him.”

“He was really emotional and my hat’s off to him,” Panthers coach Jim Duprey said. “Boy, did he play a hell of a game.”

With Rigerman drawing the Warriors attention, Ely sprinted untouched through a hole he said “parted like the red sea,” and showed off his track speed in breaking a Pioneer record that Aaron Meyers set with a 97-yard walkoff touchdown in a 2000 playoff win against Kenmore East.

After being stifled by Cheektowaga early, Rigerman, a sectional wrestling champion last season, rumbled for 218 yards and all four of his touchdowns on 19 second-half carries, running almost exclusively behind Lane Patton and Trevor Smith on the right side of the line.

The 6-foot-3, 235-pound Rigerman, who is also a hurdler and jumper during outdoor track season, has set out on a torrid pace with 959 yards and 14 touchdowns through the first four games after converting from tight end for his senior season.

“He’s just been phenomenal, he’s been a nonstop machine for us,” Ely said. “You couldn’t ask for a better running back to have.”

Rigerman also led the defense with 11 tackles from his middle linebacker spot and recovered a fumble at the Cheektowaga 19 that led to his 1-yard touchdown dive late in the third quarter.

Cheektowaga’s Tamell Bass caught a 26-yard touchdown from KeShone Beal, who also ran for a 3-yard score, to cut Pioneer’s lead to 20-14 with 5:56 remaining.

Rigerman responded two minutes later when he rammed through the Warriors defense for a 59-yard touchdown. His first touchdown came on a 6-yard run early in the third quarter to regain the lead after Beal had tied the game following Rigerman's fumble on a punt snap that gave Cheektowaga the ball at the Panthers’ 10. The fourth score was a 27-yarder inside the last two minutes.

Cheektowaga outgained Pioneer, 418-378, and ran more plays, 48-40, but three turnovers (Tra’e Hill also had an interception) proved costly. The Warriors also squandered a chance to tie the game going into halftime when Beal drove them to the Pioneer 3 but failed to score on a bootleg run on the final play.

“They were bringing it to us and we just needed to keep them out of the end zone. I don’t care how many snaps they got,” Duprey said. “That one at the end of the half was so critical for us, so important, and then we started to take charge.”

During postgame handshakes, several Cheektowaga players promised they would see Pioneer again, forecasting a rematch for the sectional championship in November at New Era Field.

“I hope so,” Duprey said. “Apparently, they didn’t enjoy the outcome and I’m all about giving that one another shot.”

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