Aaron Wahler wasn’t immediately sure-handed when it came to holding onto the ball in the early minutes of the Cleveland Hill's 54-6 football win against Letchworth/Warsaw.
But he was sure-footed.
Wahler ran for 177 yards and three touchdowns on 16 carries for the Golden Eagles in a Far West Class C Regional on Friday at Clarence High School.
Cleveland Hill (10-1) advances to a Class C state semifinal for the second year in a row. The Golden Eagles will face either Holland Patent of Section III or Susquehanna Valley of Section IV at 11 a.m. on Nov. 17 at Union-Endicott High School.
“There’s nothing different,” Wahler said when asked the difference between his team last year and his team this year. “We’re just as close as we were. We’ve just got to play hard the whole time. Last year, we got ahead of ourselves with a lead at halftime, but this year, we’ve got to stick through, and hopefully we can end the season at the [Carrier] Dome.”
Wahler scored his first touchdown six minutes into the game on a 45-yard run, then helped the Golden Eagles take a 22-6 lead less than two minutes into the second half a 39-yard run. He scored his third touchdown with 5:07 left on a 12-yard run to give Cleveland Hill a 46-6 lead.
Yet playing in freezing rain, Wahler had a few bobbles in the early going, and and his teammates had a few near miscues when it came to handling the football. At one point, Wahler lost a punt that would have set up his team’s third possession.
“After playing in last week’s weather, this week’s weather is nothing new,” Wahler said, referencing Cleveland Hill’s 32-28 win against Southwestern in a downpour at New Era Field. “We’ve been used to this terrible weather all our lives, so it’s nothing new to us.”
Cleveland Hill coach Glen Graham and his staff prepared their team to handle a slick surface by practicing with a wet ball.
“But the wet ball, in this cold condition, is a little bit different,” Graham said. “We just had to keep going at it and getting used to it as best we could. And we were lucky that we only lost the one fumble.”
Letchworth/Warsaw scored its only touchdown with 1:46 left in the first quarter after Wahler’s muffed punt. The Indians (9-2) recovered the ball at the Cleveland Hill 28, and needed three plays to score on a 1-yard run by quarterback Tom Standera (5-for-11 passing, 38 yards).
Standera’s touchdown cut Cleveland Hill’s lead to 8-6 going into the second quarter, but it was the narrowest margin of the game. The Golden Eagles scored the next six touchdowns and five two-point conversions, and finished with 467 yards rushing on 48 carries. Letchworth/Warsaw finished with 40 yards rushing on 27 carries.
When Wahler wasn't handling the ball, Cleveland Hill quarterback Javon Thomas provided sound reinforcement. Thomas ran for three touchdowns and 128 yards on 16 carries, including a 39-yard touchdown run less than a minute into the fourth quarter.
“It’s always important to set the tone when you’re playing another championship-caliber team,” Graham said. “We wanted to go after them. There’s no, really, disguising what we’re going to do. We’re going to run the ball, so we want to set the tone, and it gives us a lot of energy to our offensive line and all the receivers.”
As for not being able to hold onto the ball early in the game, Wahler said Cleveland Hill went back to fundamentals: hold the ball high and tight and, as Wahler put it, “never letting go.”
The Golden Eagles maintained ball possession for 26 minutes, 13 seconds, including a third-quarter drive that lasted six minutes and ended with Thomas' 4-yard touchdown with 1:09 left despite taking four penalties and losing linemen Taylor Durkin and Alfred Walker to ejections.
Durkin and Walker will not play next weekend in the state semifinal.
“Taylor’s a two-way starter and Alfred’s a valuable substitute, but it’s just got to be next guy up,” Graham said. “It’s no different than if a guy sprains an ankle or hurts a knee. The next kid’s got to go in and do a good job. We had that tonight and we’re just going to have to work on it this week. I told both those guys, they’ve got to work hard in practice to prepare the other guys and see if they can, maybe, earn another game in Syracuse.”
Wahler gave the depth of his program’s offensive line a vote of confidence as the Golden Eagles prepare for the state semifinal.
“The people we have as backups, I trust them, that they’re going to work hard all week in practice,” Wahler said. “Going into the game, I have full faith in the whole offensive line.”