The Frontier versus Hamburg football rivalry went where it’s never gone before Friday night.
Into the postseason.
There was no Paw vs. Claw Trophy on the line at Frontier’s Joe Dietz Field as is usually the case when the teams meet to end the regular season. Something more precious was at stake: a spot into the Section VI Class A championship game.
Frontier made the plays to seize the most important game played between the two programs.
Gavin Borrello returned two kickoffs for touchdowns – the second giving the Falcons the lead for good. Teammate Jack Novak ran for touchdowns of 7 and 42 yards, while Vinnie Monaco broke the program record for rushing yards in a season as Frontier defeated the Bulldogs, 37-14, before a standing-room-only crowd on a chilly, but pleasant night for playoff football.
Borrello’s second kick return, 72 yards, reversed a 14-13 deficit late in the second quarter and sparked a 24-0 closing run by the Falcons (8-2), who lost the rivalry game and Paw vs. Claw Trophy two weeks ago to Hamburg, 21-19.
Friday was different as a host of Falcons made the plays a team needs to reach a championship final.
“It feels way better winning this game,” Monaco said. “We’ve been fighting just to go to the stadium all year. … We really wanted this a lot to go to the stadium.”
Frontier will make its first final appearance since losing in the 2013 Class AA title tilt to Jamestown. Coincidentally, the Falcons will once again face the Red Raiders in the home of the Buffalo Bills with the championship on the line Friday night at 8 at Highmark Stadium.
Jamestown advanced to the final by crushing Williamsville South, 49-14, in the other Class A semifinal. The Red Raiders and Frontier met earlier this season with the Raiders taking a 20-14 decision.
“It feels great,” Borrello said. “We’ve been grinding since Week One to get to the stadium. … We’ve been an underdog and slept on for a couple years. I just feel like right now this is our moment.”
Reaching the final is a big deal for a Falcons team that has struggled to win since its last final appearance. With Friday’s win Frontier improved to 8-2.
The eight wins match the total number of victories the program amassed from 2015-2020 -- with a winless 2018 season in Class A part of that run.
“It really comes down to the kids and my coaches,” Falcons coach Richard Gray said of the turnaround. “We have a great group of kids and senior leadership. Our staff works really hard, it’s nothing short of hard work and the love of football. … We really stressed the weight room in the offseason. Our offense is a physical offense, and we try to play sound defense. … it’s nice when you have the players who can accomplish that.”
Frontier has overcome the loss of starting quarterback and kicker Austin Lippert back in Week Seven and one of the ways it's done that is by lining up Novak, normally a tight end, in the backfield.
On Friday all he did was rush for 190 yards, including the long one around right end on the first possession of the third quarter which enabled Frontier to add to its halftime lead.
Special teams had a day for the Falcons. In addition to the two touchdowns, they also notched a safety late in the third quarter after a bad snap on a Hamburg punt sailed into the end zone.
Monaco, who rushed for 101 yards, capped the scoring blitz with a 20-yard touchdown run with 8:41 left. He broke the school record for rushing yards in a season during the game and now has 1,242.
Folks expected the 67th meeting between the teams to be the town’s “Game of the Century.” A special copy of the weekly Hamburg Sun with that headline was given out to fans along with game programs at the gate. For a half, the contest lived up to the billing. Both teams hit hard and refused to give up on plays.
Novak scored on the first play of the second quarter to break a scoreless tie and get the Frontier faithful going, but Hamburg replied with a nice drive of its own as Nolan Heavern snuck it in from the 1. The big play on the drive was a 36-yard pass play to Aiden Matyas.
Borrello replied with an even bigger play for the Falcons, scooping up a line drive kick off the turn at the 20 and racing down the right side with nothing but open space in front of him to make it 13-7.
Hamburg (7-3), which leads the all-time series between the teams 35-30-2 but has never reached the final at the stadium, marched down the field to take a 14-13 lead with 40 seconds left in the half on Heavern’s 30-yard pass to Devin Collins.
On the kickoff, Borrello did it again – this time from 72 yards as the Falcons went into halftime up 20-14.
There was no stopping them from soaring Friday.
“We knew we were the underdogs,” Monaco said. “We wanted to prove everyone wrong.”