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High school football: Carthage, Indian River plan on Class A struggle

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If still suffering from a lopsided loss to one of your biggest rivals serves as motivation, pick Carthage.

If having dominated on both sides of the ball the first time signals an advantage, take Indian River.

Saturday night’s ultimate rematch of Frontier League neighbors in the Carrier Dome for the Section 3 Class A football championship has all sorts of intriguing possibilities. But the bottom line is that almost everybody expects a closer, more competitive game than Indian River’s 48-12 blowout victory on Oct. 11. And they expect a few critical mistakes by either team or spectacular plays will decide the outcome.

Carthage head coach Sam Millich is a realist when it comes to such rematches. “One thing is for certain,” Millich said. “If you want a different result you’re going to have to change what you did the first time.”

In the Comets’ case, Indian River’s offensive line took control of the game and helped the Warriors rush for nearly 370 yards. Carthage had no answer for the Warriors’ elusive junior quarterback Denzel Barnes, who rushed for 138 yards and five touchdowns.

Millich said familiarity with Indian River and what they like to do doesn’t matter if they can’t execute your defensive game plan.

“The first game it didn’t look like we had ever seen their offense,” Millich said. “Their personnel is a little different each year, and their offense is just so difficult to defend that seeing them on tape or even in person doesn’t do it justice.”

With Barnes either keeping the ball, or handing off to playmakers like Dustin Sharritt, Jakese Crockett or Deondre Grier, Indian River’s offense can strike quickly. The ability to slow them down will be the key for Carthage, which did not do that the first meeting.

For Indian River to win again, the Warriors must keep on doing what they do best. That’s controlling the ball on offense and playing steady, aggressive defense. Last week, the Indian River defense limited Jamesville-DeWitt to just 138 yards on the ground.

Indian River head coach Cory Marsell said the first game “was a little bit lopsided, but not nearly as much as the final score indicated. The ball bounced our way a few times and we made a lot of great plays on offense and defense. But it could just as easily have been a close game if not for a few key plays.”

The Warriors’ defense never allowed the Carthage run game to generate much momentum in the first clash. Carthage quarterback Bailey Wilkinson was held to just seven carries and 77 yards and only one score.

But the Carthage offense has been operating at nearly maximum efficiency the last two weeks, rolling up 85 points against Nottingham and ES-M.

“We’re playing with a lot of confidence, and our offensive line has really begun to take charge,” Millich said. “But we still need to fix some of the issues that hurt us the first time.”

Millich said the rematch probably favors the first-game loser “because, hopefully, you’ve made the necessary adjustments.”

Said Marsell: “It all comes down to execution. The team that executes the best usually wins these types of games. Both teams have great athletes and the ability to generate lots of offense. But defense is usually what gets the job done.”

After last week’s win over Jamesville-DeWitt, Barnes said a rematch with Carthage was exactly what the Warriors wanted.

“We know it’s not going tobe as easy as the first game,” Barnes said. “But we’ve worked too hard and too long to let them stand in our way.”

Both teams were physically banged up after last week’s wins.

Carthage lost tight end/linebacker Jake Turck to a season-ending ankle injury, and linebacker Brenden Endrina suffered from concussion symptoms but is expected to play.

Marsell said it’s simply that time of year when the injuries are a fact of life. “Nobody is 100 percent, but you just try to play as hard as you can for as long as you can,” he said.

SANDY CREEK DEFENDS

Sandy Creek expected to be back in the Carrier Dome this weekend, defending its Class D crown because a majority of the players from last year’s title squad returned this season.

But it hasn’t been an easy road for the Comets, who face Herkimer at noon Saturday. Despite all of their success the past two years, their only loss in that stretch, a 30-20 defeat at Westmoreland on Oct. 12, nearly derailed hopes of repeating.

Veteran head coach Mike Stevens said after that loss, “the finger-pointing made us a mess. We’ve had to regroup and refocus our goals for the last three weeks.”

Sandy Creek fans, as well, wondered what was the matter after the defeat. “I guess we’ve spoiled them the last few years to the point where they don’t expect us to lose,” Stevens said. “But it was just one loss. To a very good team. For a lot of people, that was hard to accept.”

Stevens said a group therapy session, in the Sandy Creek baseball dugout near its practice field a few days after the Westmoreland loss, helped the team “let that loss go and look forward. Since then, we’ve played like the team we thought we were.”

That team is a physically dominating, veteran one that plays for each other and doesn’t make the kinds of mistakes that cost them against Westmoreland.

Starting with a key 34-16 win over Oswego County rival Pulaski on the last week of the regular season, Sandy Creek has regained its swagger to beat a very good West Canada Valley team on the road and then defeat a powerful Dolgeville club in last week’s semifinals.

Up next is a Herkimer club that “does a ton of different things on offense,” Stevens said. “But we feel as if our size and strength can cause them some trouble.”

The key is slowing down Herkimer senior quarterback Austin Mills, a powerful 215-pounder who runs (956 yards, 20 TD) and throws (945 yards, 15 TD) equally effectively.

Keeping Mills off the field with a ball-control running game, led by junior Cameron Hall, will help Sandy Creek fulfill its goal of a repeat.

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