ORCHARD PARK - Jimmy Rauh and Shane Smith, both wearing their No. 7 jerseys, found a place on either side of a goal post at Ralph Wilson Stadium and posed for a photograph earlier this week.
It was only fitting that the photo opportunity was in the end zone.
After all, the senior quarterbacks, from Southwestern and Fredonia respectively, have made a habit of leading their teams there the last two months.
So when the Trojans, the top-ranked team in the state, take on No. 8 Fredonia at 6:30 tonight in the Section 6 Class C championship game, it will mark one of the most anticipated matchups of the postseason.
The numbers back it up.
Southwestern (9-0) is the two-time defending state champs and the owners of a 38-game winning streak, the third-longest in the nation. The Hillbillies (8-1), meanwhile, are ranked eighth in the state and are the only team to give the Trojans a game this season, falling 27-20 a month ago.
Fredonia quarterback Shane Smith, left and Southwestern quarterback Jimmy Rauh will be squaring off in today’s Section 6 Class C final at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
P-J photo by Scott Kindberg
Making both teams go are the young men behind center.
''When Jimmy was voted captain last April, you could see that it really sunk in, that it was his team,'' Southwestern coach Jay Sirianni said. ''He took responsibility for that.''
Running the spread offense, Rauh has completed 58-of-74 passes for 1,088 yards and 18 touchdowns. He has only been intercepted once. In the earlier meeting at Fredonia, Rauh connected with junior Jake Swan for an 85-yard touchdown pass on the game's first play. The Trojans raced to a 27-6 lead, but Rauh, who threw for 172 yards in the first half, hurt his shoulder late in the second quarter and didn't play at all after intermission.
Behind Smith, who passed for 321 yards, the Hillbillies rallied, trimmed the lead to seven points and had the ball in the final minutes before falling just short.
Smith, who missed the entire 2009 season with an injury, has returned with a vengeance this fall, completing 58-of-125 passes for 1,176 yards and 13 touchdowns. He has also rushed for 671 yards and 13 TDs, making him especially difficult to defend.
''He was the reason we went from a power offense to a spread offense,'' Fredonia coach Bob Ball said. ''He can run, he can throw, he's a good leader and he plays defense. ... He's the leader that makes our team go.''
But Rauh and Smith aren't the only playmakers who will take the field tonight.
The Trojans' skill players on offense include senior running back John Mistretta (1,085 yards, 15 touchdowns), senior wide receiver Nick Austin (31 receptions, 670 yards, nine touchdowns) and Swan (12 catches, 268 yards, four touchdowns).
Mistretta, the owner of the second-most rushing TDs in school history, ran for 112 yards and a touchdown against Fredonia in October and is a punishing ball carrier who doesn't mind laying a lick on an opponent. Austin is coming off a 10-catch, 215-yard performance in a semifinal victory over Salamanca during which he caught a highlight-reel 78-yard TD strike from Rauh, and Swan - tied with Mistretta for the team lead in touchdowns with 15 - has scored as a member of the offense, the defense and on special teams.
''It's nice to have those weapons,'' Sirianni said, ''because it leads to some balance.''
Defensively, the Trojans have yielded 59 points all season and have posted five shutouts, including one in each of the last three games. Senior linebackers David Tapia and Tyler Uber are the team's top tacklers with 78 and 59 respectively. Swan leads in interceptions with six while senior Justin Funcell has two.
Sirianni has been able to orchestrate it all despite being hit hard by injuries to key personnel. Rauh, Mistretta, and senior linemen Pat Langworthy and Jake Currie have missed time with various ailments, but all will be ready to go tonight.
Fredonia, which defeated Grover Cleveland, 45-20, in the sectional semifinal, counters with a talented core group of its own.
Five players have at least 200 yards rushing, including senior Greg Burroughs, who is second to Smith with 475 yards and four touchdowns. Seniors Tyler Buckley (17 catches, 364 yards, seven touchdowns), senior Alex Ippolito (14-258-4) and junior Dyan Cassidy (13-281-4) are Smith's favorite targets.
Burroughs (70) and senior linebacker Jordan Sherlock (67) are the Hillbillies' top tacklers. Burroughs also leads in sacks with four.
''It should be a great game,'' Ball said, ''just like the first time around.''