Realizing how fortunate both teams were to escape with semifinal victories last Saturday, both Immaculate Heart Central and General Brown feel as if they have a new life heading into one of the most anticipated area showdowns in recent memory.
That it will take place an hours drive from both schools at Syracuse Universitys spacious Carrier Dome during the Section 3 Class C football championship game at noon Sunday makes this rematch of a classic three weeks ago all the more appealing.
Both the Cavaliers and Lions were taken to the brink last week at Carthage, needing final-quarter rallies to knock off lower-seeded foes, setting up this game. IHC just got by Class C North foe Thousand Islands 13-12 after General Browns heart-stopping 35-33 win over Utica Notre Dame.
Players and coaches from both sides agreed that being pushed to the limit not only showed their true character, but offered a glimpse of how each team will react in what promises to be many more pressure situations this week.
We hadnt trailed at halftime all year, so it was a different feeling, IHC head coach Paul Alteri said of his teams 6-0 deficit against Thousand Islands. Our coaches challenged the players to step up and show what they are made of.
IHC senior defensive end Cody St. Onge said the key for the Cavaliers was we just did what we had to do to win that game. Its easy to play when youre ahead by a lot of points. But when your are down, and your season is on the line, thats when you find out what kind of team you have.
Their passing attack grounded, the Cavaliers went almost exclusively to the ground during an 18-play drive that led to Mike Marras tying touchdown in the closing minutes. IHC then won on Luis Janers extra-point kick.
IHC was in nearly the same boat in the first General Brown game when it reeled off a long scoring drive to eventually take the lead. And then IHC hung onto the ball at the end by making several key plays after forcing a big turnover deep in its own territory.
The Cavaliers will be without one of the main weapons, however, this week. Senior wide receiver Nick Koelmel, who leads the team with 39 receptions for 545 yards and has scored 12 touchdowns, underwent an appendectomy on Thursday and is out.
Im just sick for Nick and the team, Alteri said. But its the next man up, and everybody else will have to a little more.
Veteran General Brown coach Steve Fisher, who brings the Lions to the Dome for the fifth time in 10 years, said he and his staff have tried not to dwell on that first meeting. But that, hopefully, they learned some valuable lessons from last weeks close encounter.
The bottom line is we have to play better, and especially tackle better, Fisher said. I know their quarterback was fabulous. But we allowed way too many big plays when we should have stopped them for shorter yardage. IHC is capable of doing the same thing with so many talented skill players and a great quarterback. Sometimes, you learn more when you lose.
General Brown senior center/linebacker Rob Pickeral said the fact that IHC will be its championship opponent wont have a bearing on how the Lions prepare for Sunday.
That first game is history. But I think we learned a lot from that loss, Pickeral said. Mainly that you cant take any plays off and you have to play a complete four quarters. Utica Notre Dame exposed some of our weaknesses, and showed that you cant just show up and hope to win no matter who the opponent is. But playing IHC sure draws your attention. Theres no need for motivation when you play them.
Alteri said he and his players have studied the tape of the first General Brown game and came to the same conclusion.
It was a really great game to play and be a part of, Alteri said. We were fortunate to win because they just as easily could have gone home with a victory. So I tell the kids, dont forget. But dont expect it to be any different because its still IHC-General Brown.
Alteri is hoping the quick Dome carpet and perfect conditions is just the tonic for his high-powered passing game, which was held to 84 yards last week. In the first General Brown game, Carpenter completed 16 of 33 throws for 256 yards and three touchdowns.
And while IHC dominated the air in the first meeting, General Brown ran on the tough IHC defense effectively. Zech Pitre gained 152 yards and scored three times as the Lions amassed 312 yards on the ground. But sophomore quarterback Evan Will did not complete a pass against IHC, either.
The veteran-laden IHC roster, with 14 seniors, expected to challenge for a sectional crown. And they wont be satisfied just getting there.
We have to complete the cycle, St. Onge said. Playing General Brown is big no matter when it happens. To get them in the Dome, you cant ask anything better than that.