Man, where to start?
Senior Adam Zwierlein made arguably the biggest tackle in program history, classmate Jesse Manuel rushed for 302 yards and five touchdowns, and Tioga qualified for the Class D state football title game for the first time Friday night.
On a chilly and breezy night at Cicero-North Syracuse, the Tigers barely held off a game crew from Bishop Kearney, 38-36, in a state semifinal.
Oh, and that semifinal roadblock, the one that stopped Tioga the past four years, forget about it. The Tigers (11-1) will play opposite of Ticonderoga (11-1) at noon Nov. 27 at the Carrier Dome. Ticonderoga defeated Tuckahoe, 32-0, Friday at Dietz Stadium in Kingston in the other Class D semifinal.
“It feels great,” said Zwierlein, who rushed for 141 yards and earned defensive player of the game honors for Tioga. “We’ve been working at this for four years for our seniors. To have all that work payoff is amazing.”
Things appeared to be going Tioga’s way one play into the fourth quarter. Manuel took a handoff off the left side, ran through an arm tackle and scored his fifth touchdown of the night. Tanner Folk’s extra point extended the Tigers’ lead to 38-20.
But back came in the Kings and their highly impressive senior quarterback Todd LaRocca. This 6-foot-3, 190-pounder probably covered two miles while throwing for 276 yards and two touchdowns (he also rushed for a touchdown). His scrambling ability gave the Tigers fits all night.
On the ensuing play from scrimmage after Manuel’s TD, LaRocco rolled left and then came back to the middle of the field before heaving a pass about 55 yards. Devin Green caught it behind Tioga’s defense around the 20 and zig-zagged his way into the end zone on a 62-yard scoring play. LaRocco hit Justin Davis on the two-point conversion as BK pulled to 38-28.
After the Kings forced a punt, they took over at their 24 with 6:33 left. LaRocco, who completed 17 of 25 passes, went 4-for-4 on a drive that ended with him scoring on a 2-yard run into the left corner of the end zone. Dahmir Pross’ two-point run made it 38-36 with 4:27 left.
Things appeared to shift completely in the Kings’ favor when Rian Carter recovered the ensuing onside kick, a ball that eluded the grasp of Tioga’s Zach Blayda.
LaRocco picked up 2 yards and a first down at Tioga’s 34.
But Pross was dropped for a 1-yard loss on first down and Tioga’s Tyler Whitmore nearly had an interception on second down. LaRocca then hit Eric Carter for a 4-yard gain, setting up fourth-and-7 from the 31. After a timeout with 2:58 left, LaRocca rolled left and appeared to have room around the corner, but Zwierlein came up quickly and made a diving ankle-high tackle for a 5-yard loss.
“I reacted,” Zwierlein said. “I knew if I missed it — game over.”
Added Tioga coach Nick Aiello: “We got the one tackle we needed on him and that’s all the matters.”
Two minutes and 50 seconds still remained, but Manuel and his physical offensive line took care of that. Manuel carried five straight times, gaining 25 yards and picking up two first downs that sealed it.
“Our line, I definitely have to give them credit,” Manuel said of Austin Payne, Decker Caleb, Caleb Manwaring, Trey Howland and Zach Hutchinson. “They blew open some holes on that final drive. The holes were there and I just got through them.”
Every one of Tioga’s 52 plays from scrimmage were runs and all of them came against a King’s defense that stacked all 11 players within 6 yards of the line. Still, Tioga gained 444 yards.
“It’s about grit, toughness and being physical,” Aiello said.
Two other plays proved critical in this one.
Trailing, 14-6, BK (9-3) drove inside of Tioga’s 1. Facing a third-and-goal on the second play of the second quarter, LaRocco tried a sneak but fumbled and Tioga’s Caleb recovered.
The Tigers then drove 99 yard in five plays, the big play a 77-yard-burst up the middle by Zwierlein to BK’s 10. One play later, Manuel scored untouched off the right side from 5 yards and Folk’s PAT made it 21-6.
“When you have a team that’s that powerful on the ground, when you have turnovers it’s tough to bounce back from that,” BK coach Eddie Long said. “That was a huge, huge turnover.”
Later in the quarter, Tioga faced a fourth-and-6 from the 11. After a timeout, the Tigers elected to send Folk on for a 27-yard field goal, which he made easily. It gave Tioga a 24-12 lead it would take into halftime, and three points that turned out to be very large.
“You look at the field goal we had instead of going for it on fourth-and-6, that won the game for us,” Aiello said.
Manuel earned outstanding offensive player of the game honors for the Tigers, who received a pair of sacks from Blayda.