There is no denying the outcome of Saturday afternoon’s Section 4 Class AA football semifinal between Elmira and Horseheads is a foregone conclusion in the eyes of many people.
The Express comes in with an 8-0 record, the highest-scoring offense in Section 4 at 53 points per game and the No. 15 Class AA ranking from the New York State Sportswriters Association. Horseheads (3-5) has dropped five of its last six games following a 2-1 start, including a 49-7 setback against Elmira two weeks ago at home.
For the participants, though, the only thing that has been decided is they will meet at Ernie Davis Academy’s Marty Harrigan Field at 1:30 p.m. Saturday for the right to face either Binghamton or Corning next week in the title game.
“The records are thrown out the window. This is a brand new season,” Elmira head coach Jimmy McCauley said.
Horseheads looks at the rematch as more opportunity than impossibility.
“Everybody thinks we’re the underdog,” Blue Raiders head coach Damian Saks said. “Look at what they’ve done this season; look at we’ve done. They’re undefeated and have a lot of things going on, a lot of things going correctly. Even with that, our kids have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Our kids have practiced well and they’re excited. It goes back to the idea that it’s still a crosstown rivalry. … We want these guys to compete. They want to come out and want to play good, strong football. We want to end our season on a high note.”
What it boils down to Saturday is the Blue Raiders will need to do two things to have a chance: limit big plays for Elmira’s double-wing offense and limit their own turnovers when they’re potentially prolific passing game has the ball.
The Express won’t make the first part of that equation easy. Elmira has rushed for 3,199 yards this season on 338 attempts, which averages out to half a yard shy of 10 yards per carry. Dashaun Sutton has carried 120 times for 1,204 yards and 19 touchdowns, while fellow senior Allaah Sessions has produced 1,028 yards and 16 touchdowns on 95 carries. They have five additional touchdowns this season, giving them a combined 40.
Elmira can also hurt you with fullback Devon Torres, while Deonte Jones provides depth at wingback as one of the fastest backs in the section. The Express makes few mistakes, with few turnovers or penalties on offense. It all adds up to a daunting challenge for the Horseheads defense.
“The offense has been around for a while. It’s not new,” Saks said of the double wing used by Elmira. “The fact is they have incredible athletes right now. They have a line that’s solid and can move people off the ball. Their running backs are excellent at reading holes and cutting back in lanes. Once they hit open air, they’re gone. We’ll do our best to try to contain them. … It is a big, bruising offense. We have to try to match that type of commitment.”
While players like Sessions and Sutton have piled up big numbers, the team-oriented approach is evident in the manner in which Elmira swarms to the ball on defense, gets downfield blocks on offense and benefits from big plays on special teams.
“One thing we’ve been preaching all year is there’s no such thing as a one-man team,” McCauley said. “There’s no certain person or group of people, it’s a collection of things. We have 46 guys on the roster and we are 46 strong.”
Horseheads scored 20 points or more in each of its first five games, but the Blue Raiders have been held to 27 points combined in the last three games by Johnson City, Elmira and Union-Endicott. Cutting down on turnovers is a focus for the Raiders, who can move the ball down the field quickly when senior quarterback Ben Clark is on target..
“They do a lot of good things,” McCauley said of Horseheads’ offense. “They spread you out, they put athletes in space. It’s making sure guys are aware of alignments, making sure guys are aware of assignments. It’s all about preparation. We’ve seen a lot of things on film.”
Corning (5-3) at Binghamton (6-2), 7 p.m. Friday: The other Class AA semifinal pits two teams that have seen a lot in the postseason, including Corning’s 58-24 semifinal win over Binghamton last year.
The Patriots earned the right to host this game with their 41-34 victory over Corning two weeks ago at home. The Hawks lost leading rusher Devon Sullivan to a season-ending foot injury in that game, but Ali Muhammad had 28 carries for 220 yards last week in the Hawks’ 45-12 victory over Syracuse Corcoran.
Watkins Glen/Odessa-Montour (7-1) vs. Newark Valley (7-1), 3:30 p.m. Saturday: Watkins Glen/Odessa-Montour will try to continue a season of firsts when it takes on Newark Valley in a Section 4 Class C semifinal at Union-Endicott’s Ty Cobb Stadium. Their meeting will follow the noon semifinal between Chenango Forks and Dryden.
In its first season as a combined program, the Seneca Indians earned the Section 4 Division V title with last week’s 60-32 victory over Lansing. Neither Odessa-Montour nor Watkins Glen had won a division title since the 1980s and neither had made an appearance in the Section 4 playoffs since the state tournament started in 1993.
The Seneca Indians have relied all season on a double-wing offense that has led the team to 50 points or more in five of eight games, along with a 42-point effort against Groton. WG/O-M has won seven straight since opening with a 55-12 loss to Owego, which finished the regular season 6-2 and is playing in the Class B semifinals this week.
Newark Valley represents the toughest challenge for WG/O-M since Week 1. The Cardinals’ only loss came three weeks ago, 34-21, to two-time defending Class C state champion Forks. Newark Valley, led by quarterback Nick Schermerhorn, handed three-time defending Section 4 Class D champion its only loss this season, 35-32.
The Cardinals are ranked eighth in the state in Class C. WG/O-M is ranked 18th.
Waverly (6-2) at Owego (6-2), 7 p.m. Friday: Last week Owego was a 13-12 winner at home against Waverly to secure the No. 2 seed for the Class B semifinals and home-field advantage for this rematch with the third-seeded Wolverines.
Waverly is led by senior quarterback Peyton Miller, who has 104 completions in 150 attempts for 1,468 yards and 16 touchdowns. He has also run for 495 yards and 11 touchdowns.
The winner will play either Chenango Valley (5-3) or Susquehanna Valley (5-3) in next week’s championship game. Those teams meet at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Chenango Valley.
Thomas A. Edison (2-6) at Groton (4-4), 7 p.m. Friday: This is an add-on game for both, with Groton coming off a 66-12 loss to Deposit/Hancock in the Section 4 Class D quarterfinals. Edison senior running back Logan Baker had a career rushing effort in last week’s 21-14 loss to Dryden, carrying 25 times for 173 yards and two touchdowns.
WEEK 9 SCHEDULE
Section 4 Class AA semifinal: Corning at Binghamton, 7 p.m.
Section 4 Class B semifinal: Waverly at Owego, 7
Thomas A. Edison at Groton, 7
Section 4 Class AA semifinal: Horseheads at Elmira, 1:30
Section 4 Class C semifinal: Watkins Glen/Odessa-Montour vs. Newark Valley, 3:30 at Union-Endicott High School
On Twitter: @SGAndrewLegare