Zach Ransbury stuck to a few fundamental lessons in defending one of Western New York’s top wide receivers. Sometimes those lessons worked for the Cleveland Hill cornerback. Sometimes they didn’t.
When Cleveland Hill needed its defense to come through, Ransbury stuck close to Southwestern receiver Alex Card and kept Card from getting within reach of Cole Snyder's final pass in a 32-28 win against Southwestern on Thursday at New Era Field.
“I stayed on his inside hip, and you can’t really guess where he’s going to go,” Ransbury said. “You’ve just got to follow him where he goes."
Ransbury kept his composure each time he went one-on-one against Card, who finished with 122 yards and two touchdowns on six catches.
“That’s the thing about being a cornerback," Ransbury said. "You always have to forget the last play and move on. You can’t hang your head on anything.”
Ransbury and the Eagles defense had the final say to help them to the Section VI Class C championship. The Eagles will face the Section V championship winner in a state quarterfinal/Far West Regional game at 5 p.m. Nov. 9 at Clarence High School.
“It’s the kind of thing you work on all year,” Cleveland Hill coach Glen Graham said of defending Southwestern's final drive. “You teach them to be character guys, to be calm in those situations and to know what you have to do. A tip here, a drop there, you never know what’s going to happen in that situation. They just kept lining up and playing.”
Javon Thomas scored the go-ahead touchdown for Cleveland Hill four minutes into the fourth quarter, but Ransbury’s final effort on defense also preserved Aaron Wahler’s three-touchdown, 330-yard game. Wahler scored his third touchdown with 2:05 left in the third quarter, part of a two-minute stretch in which Southwestern (4-7) and Cleveland Hill (9-4) scored three touchdowns.
When it was all over, Graham had to laugh at the furious pace of the end of the third.
“We were thinking on the sideline, ‘This is a Tuesday night MAC game,’ ” Graham said, laughing. “But again, that’s what we work on all year long, that’s how we try to prepare. That’s how the guys take the preparation that we do. Just keep your composure. Keep lining up. Keep playing. And the most important down, it’s the one you’re playing right now.”
Snyder (14-for-22 passing, 215 yards, two passing touchdowns) and Card scored touchdowns that gave Southwestern a 13-0 lead nine minutes into the game. But Wahler's run through a line of tackles cut Southwestern’s lead to 13-6 with 5:36 left in the first half. About a minute later, the Eagles took a 14-13 lead on Thomas’ second touchdown, a 52-yard run, followed by Wahler’s 2-point conversion run.
Wahler gave Cleveland Hill a 20-14 lead on his second touchdown, a 91-yard run on Cleveland Hill’s second play from scrimmage in the second half. After Card scored his second touchdown, a 14-yard catch from Snyder with 3:07 left in the third quarter, Wahler needed only one play to give the Eagles a 26-20 lead on a 53-yard touchdown run.
That lead, however, was fleeting. Card’s 59-yard kickoff return set up Zach Munir’s 3-yard touchdown with 1:25 left in the half, and the Eagles took a 28-26 lead on Snyder’s 2-point conversion pass, which deflected off a receiver and into the hands of offensive lineman Cooper Pannes, who was in the end zone.
That made Wahler think back on a 63-56 loss to Skaneateles in a Class C state semifinal last year.
“There were over five or six touchdowns by both teams, in the second quarter alone,” Wahler said. “This isn’t the first time we’ve had to go back and forth like that, and what we’ve known from the last matchup is to never give up, to never get down and stay strong to keep going to the finish.”
The Eagles kept that same mindset as they defended Southwestern’s final drive. The Trojans moved 26 yards on seven plays, before Ransbury kept Card out of reach of Snyder’s final pass on fourth-and-9 from the 50.
“I don’t think they did anything out of the ordinary to do that,” Southwestern coach Jehuu Caulcrick said of Cleveland Hill’s defense on the final drive. “It came down to being in the right position and making the right plays, and calling the right plays on the coaching side of things."