Soon after the Pittsford Panthers suffered their first loss of the high school football season, coach Keith Molinich decided it was time for a talk.
Victor handled Pittsford, 42-15, during Week 3 of the regular season. The Blue Devils (9-0) have since risen to No. 1 in the Class AA state rankings and into Section V’s championship game. Pittsford (8-1) brushed aside the loss, ran off six straight wins and also has made it to the sectional final, 6 p.m. Saturday at Rhinos Stadium.
So what did Molinich say to the Panthers back in September.
“We challenged them to make adjustments, that we had to practice in a different format,” Molinich said. “I think we got a little complacent with what we were doing, and then compounded with the kids out due to injuries and illness. We just weren’t in the right place during that game. In terms of our health, we were in a bad place.”
The fact that Pittsford is in the championship despite the setback means the Panthers have moved to a good place, and the latest drive to become the first football champion in Pittsford since 1982 is still alive.
One reason is the improvement of the team’s depth. Twenty-eight players have taken snaps on defense since that game at Victor. Plays during practice also are rationed. Now if a starter comes off the field, his substitute has more than a clue of what’s going on and how fast it’s happening.
“Our defense is almost exclusively different, in terms of linebackers and at free safety,” Molinich said. “All of those guys are back healthy now, and then from a running back perspective, all three of our running backs are healthy.”
Pittsford free safety Jared Petrichick and linebacker Chris Cox (54 tackles) did not play at Victor. Frankie Imburgia (5 sacks), Colin Smith and Andrew Cunningham, both linebackers, and running back Michael DeLucia also were sidelined or played sparingly. Alonzo Person, another linebacker, was with Pittsford’s JV.
A team would seem to need most, if not all of those starters, to either stop Victor’s machine-like running game or force the Blue Devils to play catch-up. Pittsford’s plans that night never really materialized, as Victor scored 28 points during the second quarter to wipe out a 15-7 deficit. The Blue Devils finished with 294 rushing yards.
“That first game we had quite a few starters out,” Pittsford senior quarterback/defensive back Colby Barker said. “Not to take anything away from Victor; it definitely showed.”
Barker knows what it’s like to be sidelined and unable to help the team: He was on the sidelines with an arm injury in 2014 and had to watch Victor trounce Pittsford 23-0 in the Class AA sectional final.
“We have expectations to win just because it’s a tradition in our program,” Barker said. “We’re clicking better now, everyone is back.
“We’ve always been there (in sectional final or semifinal), we’ve had successful seasons, but the teams like Rush-Henrietta and Aquinas, were just better than us. We haven’t been able to get over that hump.”
Section V Football Finals
at Rhinos Stadium
Matchup and when: Greece Athena (9-0) vs. Brighton (8-1), 6 p.m. Friday.
Meeting in 2016?: Yes, Athena won at Brighton, 28-21.
Playbook: Brighton coach Stephen Lian said the Barons plan to stay with their running game and see what happens. Sounds good, after 225-pound senior back Jason Cunningham ran for 250 yards and three touchdowns last Sunday. “Even more dangerous is their quarterback,” Athena coach Rob Cerone said. “You really get hurt when they fake it to Cunningham and (Shea McDonald) connects.”
Athena senior quarterback Tavon Granison has found a way to hurt defenses, despite the fact that limiting him is an opponent’s top priority. Watch Kyle Benham, plus the defensive line and Brighton’s defensive linemen.
Matchup and when: Hornell (9-0) vs. Batavia (9-0), 3 p.m. Saturday.
Meeting in 2016?: No. Batavia has won the last two sectional crowns.
Playbook: Hornell has risen again, as the Livingston County league team seeks its first title since 2011, the end of a three-peat. The running game moves Hornell, but it’s one that can move back and forth between a power-approach and speed option with Jack Henby (998 rushing yards, 15 touchdowns).
Batavia may have a more varied offense, including receivers who can take advantage of space. “They also can pound the ball,” Hornell coach Erik Werner said. Sophomore back Ray Leach (1,387 all-purpose yards, 19 TDs) does most of that for the Blue Devils. “We’re able to figure out what’s working that game,” said Batavia coach Brennan Briggs.
Matchup and when: Bishop Kearney (9-0) vs. East Rochester/Gananda (9-0), noon on Saturday.
Meeting in 2016?: No, but these teams scrimmage each preseason.
Playbook: Neither offense hesitates to call on their top running backs, Cameron Cleveland (1,886 rushing yards, 29 TDs) for ER/Gananda and Bishop Kearney senior Dahmir Pross (10.1 yards per carry, 24 rushing touchdowns). Both coaches have confidence in their passing attacks, although the Bishop Kearney Kings go to the pass more than the Bombers.
“We know that we have to stop the run and we have to be physical up front because that’s what they do,” Kearney coach Eddie Long said. ER/Gananda defeated Bath 14-6 last Sunday.
Matchup and when: Clyde-Savannah (8-1) vs. Alexander (9-0), 5 p.m. Friday
Meeting in 2016?: No. However, this is Clyde-Savannah’s fourth consecutive season in a sectional final. This is Alexander’s second appearance in a football championship.
Playbook: Alexander has scored 41.8 points a game, with Section V Class D offensive player of the year P.J. Brennan at quarterback. He knows how to capitalize on pre-snap reads, and that has turned into 19 touchdown passes and eight rushing touchdowns. The ball touches a lot of hands in an offense that controls clock with a ground game led by Dane Heberlein (861 rushing yards) and an efficient passing game.
While Alexander has allowed 81 points this season, the Trojans face a good-sized Clyde-Savannah offensive line and an offense that knows how to use tight ends as receivers. It seems the Golden Eagles know how to spread out, then pick apart defenses. Junior running back Derrick Chance is about 155 pounds, but Alexander coach Tim Sawyer said Chance has topped 1,000 rushing yards this season.