If a journey five years in the making was to see its way to a successful conclusion, Tioga Central needed a couple of special plays.
Who better to turn to than Jesse Manuel?
Tioga’s undersized and overly-talented senior made an interception with 44 seconds left, and scored the go-ahead points on a 33-yard touchdown run with 16 ticks remaining in the Tigers’ 33-26 Class D state-championship victory Friday over Ticonderoga.
It marked the Tigers’ first football state championship and more than eased the sting of the past four seasons, all derailed by state-semifinal setbacks.
This one had to be earned, one that came after the Tigers found themselves down 14 points before running an offensive play and one that wasn’t sealed until the face of Tioga football attached his final signature to four years worth of brilliance.
All Manuel did on this afternoon was gain 215 rushing yards, 52 more yards on four receptions, score three touchdowns and of course, make that critical interception.
“I can’t think of a better way to end my career,” said the 5-foot-8, 150-pound Manuel, the obvious choice for MVP honors. “I think I went out with a bang.”
First, the interception.
Ticonderoga tied the score at 26 on a 1-yard scoring sneak by Brody Rocque with 2:18 left. Tioga stuffed Ryan Trudeau on the two-point run, leaving things even.
Three plays into Tioga’s next possession, quarterback Connor Hutchinson was hit while throwing to the right sideline. The ball wobbled into the arms of Trudeau near the sideline as the Sentinels set up shop at Tioga’s 41 with 1:23 left.
Facing third-and-7 from Tioga’s 38, Ticonderoga had what at first glance appeared to be a sure touchdown. Tight end Jacob Spaulding ran a seam route on the right side and no one covered him. Rocque recognized it immediately, but so did Manuel, who was covering another receiver in the slot to the right side. Rocque threw a liner in Spaulding’s direction, but Manuel left his man, undercut it and picked it off at the 18. Manuel continued across the field and then down the right sideline on a 48-yard return to Ticonderoga’s 34.
“I looked and he was open,” said Rocque, who played quarterback in the second half after starter Evan Graney suffered a hip-pointer and went 7-for-11 for 99 yards. “I figured I’d dart it to him and let him get it and go, but the Manuel kid is athletic.”
Forty-four seconds remained.
After two running plays netted 1 yard, Tioga called its final timeout.
On the next play, Manuel took a handoff heading to his right, found a seam in the middle, made a sharp cut to the left about 6 yards downfield and continued into the left-corner of the end zone on a 33-yard scoring run. His final touch in a high school uniform resulted in the winning touchdown in the state final.
“Big-time players make big-time plays and that’s what he did today,” Tioga coach Nick Aiello said of Manuel, who finished the season with 2,866 yards for Section 4’s best rushing season. The previous mark of 2,729 was set by Binghamton graduate Jamar Smith in 2008.
The Sentinels (11-2) got off to a blazing start. They drove 81 yards on their opening possession, with Graney going 4-for-6 for 61 yards on the drive, including two completions on fourth down. Rocque capped it with a 2-yard scoring run to make it 6-0.
Tioga (12-1) then failed to fall on a squib kick on the ensuing kickoff. Ticonderoga’s Hayden Scuderi recovered at Tioga’s 38. On a fourth-and-2 from the 30, Rocque threw a halfback pass to Griffin Hughes, who made a leaping grab over a Tigers defender. That 30-yard scoring play and the ensuing two-point pass from Graney to Spaulding made it 14-0, with 2:36 left in the first quarter.
“We had to keep our composure,” Aiello said of his team’s slow start. “I told the kids to have a short memory before the game started. Hats off to 17- and 18-year olds for keeping their heads.”
Tioga responded with a 63-yard scoring drive that included a 17-yard Connor Hutchinson-to-Manuel completion for 17 yards on third-and-16. Three plays later on fourth-on-2, Manuel took a handoff left, ran through an arm tackle at the line and sprinted 32 yards for a touchdown and Tioga trailed, 14-6, with 10:06 left in the second quarter.
Hutchinson, a sophomore, played an even bigger role on Tioga’s next scoring drive. He hit Manuel three times on out patterns, covering 35 yards. The first came on the right side on a fourth-and-6 play. The next was on third-and-10, this one to the left side, covering 14 yards to the Sentinels’ 14.
“Off the field before the season, we had our problems, but I love my little brother,” said 290-pound senior Zach Hutchinson, named Tioga’s outstanding lineman after the game. “To come out here and do this in a state championship game. I was getting flustered sometimes and he’d just say calm down. He’s like that, though. He’s going to be a great quarterback.”
Adam Zwierlein capped the drive on a 3-yard scoring run off the right side with 37 seconds left in the half, leaving Tioga with a two-point deficit at halftime.
A 17-play scoring drive in the third quarter put the Tigers ahead for the first time. Connor Hutchinson jump-started it by hitting Zach Blayda on a post pattern for 21 yards on third-and-8. Zwierlein and Manuel took turns on the ground for 10 of the next 11 plays as Tioga moved to Ticonderoga’s 8. Hutchinson then sneaked for a first down to the 5.
On the next play, Hutchinson again ran a quarterback sneak and Tioga’s powerful offensive line paved a path to the end zone. That made it 18-14.
But back came the Sentinels, going 79 yards in nine plays. Trudeau (17 carries for 92 yards) ripped off a 28-yard run off the left side to Tioga’s 15 and scored one play later, again going left and Ticonderoga reclaimed a 20-18 lead with 8:47 remaining.
An all-Manuel, all-the-time, 70-yard drive ensued. It took him four plays, a 47-yard dash off the right side the biggest gainer. One play after, Manuel scored easily off the right side and Hutchinson’s two-point run made it 26-20 and 7:53 showing on the clock.
Again, the Sentinels came back, this time on a 65-yard drive. Rocque went 3-for-3 for 44 yards, the last a 26-yarder to Spaulding, who’d gotten behind Manuel on a seam route. That put the ball on the 2 and Rocque sneaked in from the 1 on second down to tie the score.
“Hard-fought game, very similar styles across the board,” Rocque said. “If we played 100 times, we win 50, they win 50.
“That Manuel kid, I’ve got to give him credit. I don’t give a lot of people credit, but he’s a good running back.”
Manuel also became Section 4’s all-time leader for touchdowns in a season. His three scores Friday gave him 45 for the season, breaking the mark of 43 set by Binghamton’s Maurice Bradford in 1998.
“My linemen have always been great and have always blown big holes for me,” said Manuel, whose 8,584 rushing yards are second-time all-time in state history to Onondaga graduate Mike Hart (11,045). “I’m blessed with a great offensive line, which helped me get what I got in my career.”