Weekly Feature

2018-11-08 / Sports

Eagles soar in Federation ‘C’ final rematch

Cleve Hill breaks own record for rushing yardage at New Era
Sports Reporter

Aaron Wahler moves the chains to set up an Eagles touchdown during Cleveland Hill’s 32-28 win over Southwestern in Thursday Federation Class C final at New Era Field. Wahler finished the contest with 330 yards and three touchdowns to help the Eagles break their own record for total rushing yardage in the sectional final. Photo by Jake French Aaron Wahler moves the chains to set up an Eagles touchdown during Cleveland Hill’s 32-28 win over Southwestern in Thursday Federation Class C final at New Era Field. Wahler finished the contest with 330 yards and three touchdowns to help the Eagles break their own record for total rushing yardage in the sectional final. Photo by Jake French Cleveland Hill’s football team won the rematch of the 2017 Federation Class C championship game Thursday at New Era Field, once again beating Southwestern, 32-28, to punch its ticket to the Far West Regional round of the state playoffs.

The Eagles sloshed their way to a New Era Field record 498 rushing yards on the night, rallying from a 13-0 deficit to secure the victory. Aaron Wahler finished just 54 yards shy of the stadium’s individual rushing yardage record, gaining 330 yards and scoring three touchdowns to guide Cleveland Hill’s efforts.

“It’s a pretty tremendous feeling to be able to win the sectional championships three years in a row,” Wahler said. “Beating a team like Southwestern with a top-five wide receiver and a great quarterback – that also has one of the best coaches around who just happened to previously play in the NFL – makes it feel even better. And to know that I was on both teams that broke the stadium record for rushing yardage makes it even better still. It’s really cool to realize that our school owns two of the rushing records at the stadium.”

Cleveland Hill and Southwestern meeting at New Era Field has happened fairly regularly since 2010, with the Eagles now owning a 3-1 mark over the Trojans thanks to this year’s win, their third straight. This time around was the closest of the three, however, with Cleveland Hill emerging from last year’s clash victorious by a 42-16 margin one year after initially setting the stadium rushing record with 478 yards in 2016’s 52-21 triumph.

“To three-peat as sectional champions is highly unusual, so it feels great to have done so – and this group of young men are what truly make it special,” coach Glen Graham said. “It’s just a fantastic accomplishment on their part. Even with the kids we called up, we had about 17 kids who were in the championship game last year, and of them probably six kids who suited up and played a lot in our championship win two years before. The venue isn’t too big for them; we just had to concentrate on playing in a tough game.”

Running the ball would’ve been the Eagles’ go-to plan even had the weather been better Thursday, but with a relentless wave of rain drenching the players and the field, keeping the ball on the ground proved to be a winning strategy in what was a back and forth affair that saw Southwestern in the driver’s seat early. After coming up empty following their initial eight-play drive that took nearly five minutes off the clock, the Eagles found themselves down 6-0 just under three minutes later when Southwestern quarterback Cole Snyder broke through a hole in the line on a fourth-and-seven play and streaked, untouched, 22 yards into the end zone.

Southwestern bumped its lead up to 13-0 with 9:05 left in the second quarter on a 62-yard connection between Snyder and Alex Card, but the Eagles finally got on the board on their next possession when Wahler broke an early tackle attempt and scooted 60 yards up the field for a touchdown with 5:36 remaining in the first half. Javon Thomas took his turn barely a minute later, scoring on the Eagles’ first play – after forcing a three-and-out – after changing his initial direction and turning on the jets to cruise 52 yards for the go-ahead score, 14-13, with 4:20 to play in the half.

“It’s an incredible comfort to have two weapons like Aaron and Javon in our backfield,” Graham said. “They both know, and both gave a ton of credit to them, that our offensive line and the tight ends that we have really make their success possible. They all came together as a unit over the course of the season. Those yards those guys get don’t happen without the kids we have up front. Those guys on the line were selling out every play as a group; if the kids they were blocking were bigger than us, it didn’t matter because we were fighting every down.”

Bolstered by their play in the second quarter, Cleveland Hill added to its advantage the first time it got the ball in the third quarter when Wahler once again worked his magic and turned on the speed to sprint 91 yards for a score with 6:06 left in the frame. That touchdown proved to be fortunate as Southwestern rallied to knot the game on its next possession, 20-20, when a slip to the turf by Cleveland Hill’s defender allowed Snyder to hit an open Card on a 14-yard strike with 3:07 left in the stanza.

Incredibly, both teams traded touchdowns yet again before the close of the quarter, with Cleveland Hill taking a 26-20 lead after Wahler broke a myriad of tackles en route to notching a 53-yard scoring run, only to see Zishan Munir score on a 3-yard run a mere 40 seconds later to give the Trojans a 28-26 lead heading into the final stanza.

“Aaron worked really hard at being patient all game, and when he saw daylight he took it,” Graham said. “And when he got into their secondary, he simply ran past people. All told, it was about going hard in the second half and answering every time they did something positive. The back and forth nature of the game was about the character of both teams. It just came down to who made the most plays, and fortunately for us we made a few more that night.”

The Eagles weren’t done making plays heading down the stretch, as Thomas once again put Cleveland Hill out front, 32-28, with 8:13 to play in regulation with a 7-yard sweep to the right. A huge fumble recovery just two plays into Southwestern’s ensuing drive gave the Eagles the opportunity to drain a good chunk of the clock, which they did to leave the Trojans with only 2:35 to move the ball 76 yards. That task ultimately proved to be too daunting for the Trojans, who turned the ball over at midfield with a minute to play to leave the Eagles victorious.

Thomas chipped in with 154 yards on 22 carries for the victors, while Chris Diem added 12 yards on three carries. Defensively, Thomas and Jason Escbach each had seven total tackles to guide the way, while Diem had five total tackles for the Eagles (9-1 overall), who will look to make a return trip to the state semifinals provided they can get by Section V’s Warsaw/ Letchworth (9-1 overall) in Friday’s Class C Far West Regional that is slated to kick off at 5 p.m. at Clarence High School.

“We’re just trying to go into every game with confidence,” Wahler said. “We never get too far ahead of ourselves; we take it one game at a time and stick together as a team. This deep in the playoffs, it’s all about defense and the little things. Whoever makes the fewest mistakes and wins the special teams battles is probably going to be the ones to come out on top.”

“I was able to see them play in their championship game, and it looks to me like they’re a pretty good team,” Graham said. “They’re not all that big up front, but they’re athletic, they’ve got a good quarterback, and their ground game is based on a lot of what we do, so we’ve got to be physical and disciplined defensively. Offensively, we’re just going to have to keep being physical up front, and effective and efficient at running the ball.”

email: jnadolinski@beenews.com

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