Union-Endicott permitted four first downs on Vestal’s first possession Friday night and four thereafter in a 27-3 victory for Section 4’s Class A football championship.
The Tigers shook off a grazing blow of a field goal 8:50 into play and limited Vestal to a net-55 yards of offense through the closing three quarters on a chilly, breeze-blown evening at Alumni Stadium.
Michael Cheslock rushed persistently for 137 yards and Joey Orlando passed for 87 and a touchdown for U-E (8-1), which will oppose Syracuse Nottingham in a state quarterfinal scheduled for 8 p.m. Friday at East Syracuse-Minoa High School.
Junior quarterback Orlando threw for one score and sneaked 1 yard for another in the second quarter, which concluded with U-E on top by 14-3. Following a scoreless third period, the Tigers eased away from Vestal (5-5) by striking twice in the closing five minutes.
“They came out swinging, but coach Hurd always tells us that we’ve got to bounce back. We bend, don’t break,” said U-E fullback/linebacker Dan Davis, who was recognized as the game’s Most Valuable Player. “We didn’t give up a touchdown, right?”
“We had to pick it up. We were so dull coming out,” Orlando said. “We just had to get it going after a really slow start.”
Indeed, U-E gained 9 yards on three plays to open the contest, back-pedaled 5 on a procedure penalty from punt formation, and then dug in defensively as Vestal set up at its 45-yard line with 2:20 elapsed.
And didn’t the Golden Bears get all muscle-bound, calling upon three-back power football to nickel-and-dime their way to U-E’s 4-yard line on 13 consecutive running plays.
A third-down rush by Luke Wright was slowed in the backfield by 275-pound Andy Brinser, and eventually shut down for a single-yard gain, leaving Mike Chewens to kick a 20-yard field goal.
Little did the Golden Bears know that from that stage forward, their offense would be shifted into what amounted to neutral by U-E defenders bent on securing the program’s eighth state-playoff appearance from 1999 to the present.
The lead was U-E’s for keeps once Orlando collaborated with Miller for a 28-yard touchdown pass on a fourth-and-6 tester two plays into the second quarter.
It was a drive that began at the Tigers’ 20 following a second consecutive kickoff sent across the goal line by Vestal senior John Edwards, and featured a 29-yard, third-and-6 pass from Orlando to Miller.
On the scoring play, Miller dashed curiously free of resistance to make the catch just inside the 5-yard line on the right hashmarks.
Following the kickoff, the Golden Bears turned in what amounted to their final offensive play of much consequence. That was a 17-yard, first-down rush by Wright that advanced Vestal to its 45-yard line. Four plays later, the Bears would begin a pattern by punting from their territory.
“We had to match their emotion,” Tigers coach Shane Hurd said. “Early on, we didn’t. Those kids wanted to win a football game tonight.”
U-E’s second scoring drive started at Vestal’s 49-yard line 4:46 before halftime. Seven plays in, the Tigers faced fourth-and-7 from the 21 — but didn’t a perfectly poised Orlando feign a toss, roll right and throw right to Nick Yesensky 1 yard past the first-down marker.
Three plays later, Orlando lunged headlong to complete a 9-yard rush to the 1, and then — with the backfield aligned in its Capital-I formation — sneaked across for a score. Tom Mencel’s PAT kick made it 14-3 with 48.6 seconds until halftime.
The third quarter brought an 18-yard, fourth-and-14 rush by Davis with U-E in punt formation. That advanced the ball to Vestal’s 29-yard line, but the Tigers sloppily backtracked from there and lost a fumble with 97 seconds to play in the quarter.
The Bears’ next two possessions concluded with a 5-yard fourth-down sack and a lost fourth-down fumble, respectively if not craftily. The latter left U-E the football at Vestal’s 43-yard line, and Davis rushed in from the 5 on the fifth play of the possession.
The final TD, a 4-yard rush by Drew Hogan with 1:35 remaining, finished a four-play, 21-yard drive. The Tigers’ Matt DePalmo recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, but 7 yards from needless points, Orlando twice dropped to a knee.
Cheslock was named most outstanding offensive player, and U-E’s Pat Carlin most outstanding defender.
“I told (Cheslock) after the game, you don’t have to break one to be a great back,” Hurd said of his 24-carry, 137-yard grinder. “If you break an 80-yarder, yeah you’re a great back. But if you get 4, 8, 1, 9, 5 — that’s a pretty good back, too. You don’t have to break an 80-yarder to be a good back, and he was a good back tonight.”