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Cleveland Hill's comeback bid falls short in state football semifinals

ENDICOTT – Another trip to Union-Endicott High School’s Ty Cobb Stadium resulted in Cleveland Hill football players walking off the field in tears.

The Golden Eagles’ comeback bid in the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association Class C semifinal fell short as the Section VI champion's season came to an end against Susquehanna Valley of Section IV, 21-20, Saturday afternoon.

On a drive that would’ve ended with a euphoric game-winning touchdown celebration or bust, the Golden Eagles turned the ball over when senior Aaron Wahler went airborne to get a first down on a fourth-and-two play. He had the yardage for the first down, but on the way down to the turf, he was stripped of the football. Zach Green recovered for the unbeaten Sabers (12-0) with 96 seconds left near midfield.

"They made a play and that's what the game comes down to," Cleveland Hill coach Glen Graham said. "We put the ball in the hands of the one of our best two kids. We'd call it again. But that happens. It's competition."

That may be true, but it did little to make Wahler, teammate Javon Thomas or any other Golden Eagles feel better.

They viewed Saturday as their chance at redemption after suffering a season-ending loss here to eventual state champion Skaneateles, 63-56, last year.

Though SV had the answers to negate the Golden Eagles' break-away speed, Cleveland Hill kept plugging away as two of its three scoring drives consumed more than 16 minutes of clock. The Eagles were getting better as the game progressed.

Cleveland Hill (10-2) trailed 21-6 at halftime but trimmed the deficit to 21-12 on its first drive of the third quarter. The 6-minute, 39-second drive ended with Wahler scoring on an 8-yard dash, his second TD run of the game.

Thomas’ 76-yard touchdown run with 7:32 left, followed by a two-point conversion run by Wahler, pulled Cleveland Hill within one. The Golden Eagles forced a punt with 3:38 left to earn one final possession.

But there was no comeback by the Eagles, no trip to the Carrier Dome. Only a long bus trip home, an experience they didn't want to repeat.

"We just came up short," said Thomas, who rushed 14 times for 138 yards. "I can't even speak right now. I love my team. We played a great game. I can't be mad. We played our hearts out."

SV needed just a minute and change to score the game’s first touchdown, as Jarred Freije scored on a 9-yard run.

Cleveland Hill responded on its first drive, tying it as Wahler (22 carries, 76 yards) scored from the 1 to cap a possession that ate 9:59 of clock.

The Sabers went ahead for good with 4:36 left on Dan Matthews’ 1-yard run. Freije ran in the conversion to make it 14-6. Sethan King’s 2-yard TD run with 50 seconds left enabled SV to go into halftime up 21-6.

"They took a lot of the things we wanted to do away from us," Graham said. "In the end, I thought we were doing some things exactly the way we wanted to. In the end, it just didn't work out for us."

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