The Section VI Class AA football playoffs will again go through Lancaster.
“There’s no better feeling,” senior Tim Gardner said after running for 85 yards and two touchdowns in the Legends’ 26-16 comeback win at Orchard Park to secure one of the top two seeds for next week’s AA semifinals. “It’s always great to get a win but having home-field advantage is huge.”
“One last shot at Foyle Kling to get that W and go to the stadium,” junior linebacker and offensive lineman Conor Mahony said. “We can’t ask for anything better.”
Lancaster (7-1, 6-1 AA) won’t learn its playoff opponent until after Saturday’s games. Bennett (5-2, 5-1), the only team to beat the two-time defending AA champions this season, will earn the No. 1 seed with a win at Niagara Falls (1-6, 1-5).
Orchard Park (6-2, 5-2) could have claimed the division title and top seed with a victory Friday. The Quakers are now likely to be seeded fourth if Williamsville North (5-2, 4-2) wins at Hutch-Tech (1-5, 2-6) on Saturday.
Barring an upset, Lancaster will host Williamsville North in a rematch of last year’s AA final, and Bennett will host Orchard Park, the only team in the division to beat the Tigers this season.
“There’s four really good teams in AA and anybody can come out on top,” Lancaster coach Eric Rupp said, “but playing at home always gives you that little extra edge and we are thankful to have that opportunity.”
Quakers coach Craig Dana described playing in the section’s largest class as “a heavyweight battle every week,” that will only intensify in the playoffs.
Orchard Park went 3-0 on the road this season but fumbled the chance to host a playoff game at Quaker Stadium with a homecoming loss to Williamsville North three weeks ago and the senior night setback against Lancaster.
“We’ve been good on the road this year, so we’ll have to get after it,” Dana said.
Scoreless and trailing at halftime for the first time this season, Lancaster took control of the line of scrimmage to win the matchup between the No. 2 and 3 teams in the Western New York large schools poll.
Orchard Park opened an early lead when Pierson Savarino scored on a 8-yard run after two Archie Bartolotti receptions totaling 43 yards. OP was driving to extend its lead until Lancaster’s Shawn Davis made an interception at the 1-yard-line. But the Quakers defensive line pushed into the end zone on the next play for a safety that made it 8-0 midway through the second quarter.
The Legends barely cross midfield and got nowhere near the red zone in the first half. They went to the locker room trailing against a local opponent for the first time since a comeback win at Orchard Park on Oct. 1, 2016.
Rupp called it “the worst half of football we’ve played, offensively speaking, since I’ve been the head coach.”
“We are shooting ourselves in the foot consistently,” the third-year coach told the Legends. “We are not going to change our plays. We’ve just got to execute. It starts with one play, we get a little momentum and we go from there.”
Tight end Brian Martin swung the momentum less than two minutes into the third quarter, getting wide open to haul in a 43-yard touchdown pass from sophomore Jason Mansell.
“We just needed someone to make a play, someone to step up, and a lot of us did that,” Martin said. “You could feel the energy rising.”
Nick Meara’s interception gave Orchard Park the ball back near midfield and Mansell’s fourth-down pass to Davis set up senior Gianluca Fulciniti for a 4-yard quarterback keeper to give Lancaster a 12-6 lead.
Mahony centered a reshuffled and refocused offensive line that “manhandled them in the second half,” said Gardner, who finished two methodical fourth quarter drives with scoring runs from inside the 10.
“Our linemen did phenomenal,” Fulciniti said. “Out of this world after those adjustments.”
The Quakers threatened a comeback early in the fourth quarter. Immediately after Orchard Park fumbled the kickoff following Gardner’s first touchdown, Cayden Collins intercepted Mansell and returned it for a touchdown. Jack Sharp’s two-point conversion pass to Bartolotti cut the lead to 19-16.
But the Legends’ power running game and a defense that got stronger as the game wore on preserved the victory and home-field advantage for the playoffs.
“It’s a dog fight, any of the four teams have a chance,” Mahony said. “Our key is the defense. If we shut them down, they can’t score, they can’t win.”