ORCHARD PARK - Three big plays led to the end of the Fredonia Hillbillies' (7-3) football season, as the Cleveland Hill Golden Eagles (8-2) hung on for a 22-20 win in the Section 6 Class C championship game Saturday, at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
"It's always tough to beat a team twice," Fredonia head coach Bob Ball said. "Southwestern will tell you that from two years ago. And in two weeks, we beat two teams twice. It's extremely difficult, but again I think we could have beat this team. Our guys believe it, but what led to our loss today was the first three minutes of the second half."
Ahead 14-6 at intermission, the Hillbillies saw their lead disappear in a matter of minutes, as the Golden Eagles struck for two touchdowns in the first four minutes of the third quarter to build a 22-14 lead that they would never relinquish.
"It's especially sweet," Cleveland Hill head Coach Glen Graham said of the Golden Eagles' win over the Hillbillies. "Any time you can get a win here it's sweet. But to do it against them ... They've done a great job against us the last few times."
After dropping the opening kickoff of the second half, Cleveland Hill's Aaron Jackson recovered and took the ball 75 yards to the end zone and after the Golden Eagles converted the two-point try, the game was knotted at 14.
"That was huge," Graham said. "We've been waiting for that one for a while. The kids did a nice job."
"That was a killer," Ball added of the touchdown return. "Especially to start the second half when you've got a lead."
The Hillbillies were forced to punt on the ensuing drive, giving the Golden Eagles' the ball back at their own 21-yard line. A false start call backed Cleveland Hill up to its own 16-yard line, where Brandon Thomas broke free of the Hillbillies' defense for an 84-yard touchdown run.
"I was incredibly happy for him," Graham said of Thomas. "And for the group on the offensive line. There was some great blocking by those guys."
Thomas finished the game with 133 yards on 15 carries.
"We were there," Ball said of the Thomas touchdown. "If he made a run and we didn't have someone there, that'd be one thing. We had guys there, we didn't bring him down. We didn't tackle him. I mean he's a great (running back) with speed, but we had two or three guys there to make the tackle and they didn't bring him down in the open field."
Up 20-14, Cleveland Hill elected to go for the two-point conversion again, and what happened on the play proved to be the difference on the scoreboard when the clock went to all zeroes in the fourth quarter.
Quarterback Jacob Radlich skipped a lateral in the direction of Jackson, who had the ball bounce off his leg and into the end zone, where Jared Watkins fell on it for two points and a 22-14 edge.
"Those three plays led to 14 points for them," Ball said. "And, in the end, it was enough for them to hang on for the win."
"I think they got the call right," Graham said. "I really did. We told (the players) we were going to go with the Alabama skip pass if we scored a second touchdown and it was a great job by the officiating.
''They got together, they conferred and I love the call obviously.''
Fredonia wasn't done however, as it put together an 11-play, 79-yard drive that was capped off by a 10-yard jaunt up the middle by Weston Ley, his second score of the afternoon.
"I thought we'd do alright, but again all our touchdowns were off big plays, except for that last drive, which was just a championship football team wanting to win the game,'' Ball said.
Going for the tie, Trent Thompson's pass to Cody Smith fell incomplete, giving the game its final score, 22-20.
"There's no way this game wasn't going to be like that," Graham said. "It was two good football teams, (Fredonia's) a fantastic football team and we're fortunate that it ended up in our favor this time."
The Hillbillies did have one final shot at the lead, taking advantage of a failed fake punt by the Golden Eagles, which gave them a drive start at the Cleveland Hill 41-yard line with 56 seconds left in the game. Ley, who finished with 104 yards on 23 attempts, got the Hillbillies up to the Golden Eagles' 29-yard line, but a run and two incomplete passes ended the game and the Hillbillies' chance at a second Section 6 title in the last three years.
"We played right to the end," Ball said. "There was no quit in any of our guys. We made some plays of our own and when they were stopping us, we didn't give up. Our guys kept plugging away and we played right down to the last play for a win."
"That's kind of how our whole year has been," Graham said. "Our whole year has been tough and (the games) being close all year. Whether we won or lost, our guys played four full quarters."
Fredonia opened the scoring on its first possession as Ley ran a sweep to the right 52 yards into the end zone, helping the Hillbillies to an early 7-0 lead with 11:03 left in the first quarter.
Cleveland Hill came back later in the first to get to within one of Fredonia's lead at 7-6, as Radlich found Watson up the right sideline for a 58-yard strike.
"We haven't given up big plays all year," Ball said. "That first one was a great pass. When they earn it and make a great play you can't fault your (defensive back). That was right on the money and that's a tough cover in any league. But the kickoff return for a touchdown and then right back to three missed tackles on a run up the middle. Those two (plays) led to our demise (Saturday)."
The Hillbillies were able to add to their lead before halt time, using a little trickery to build a 14-6 lead. Facing a third-and-15 from the Cleveland Hill 21-yard line, Ley hit Jude Gardner near the left sideline. The Hillbillies' senior running back immediately pitched the ball to an uncovered Smith, who took the ball the rest of the way for the touchdown.
"I thought about saving it for later," Ball said of the hook-and-ladder play. "But then I thought to that you've got to play all your cards when you've got the chance.
"Any time you try a trick play, it's hit or miss," Ball added. "That one hit for us."
For 16 seniors, Saturday's loss represented the last time they would put on the Hillbillies' black and orange uniforms and Ball admitted that it's sad to see their season come to an end.
"It's sad," Ball said. "We lost a couple of games this year, we had a kid injured, we faced adversity through the year and had our backs against the wall at times over at Allegany-Limestone. But we just kept responding. Our kids kept responding, responding, responding and it's just a tremendous effort on their part. Unfortunately, the longer you go on, sooner or later, there's a chance that your luck can run out."
NOTES: Along with his 104 yards rushing, Ley also added 130 yards passing, going 11 of 22. ... Senior Zach Buckley finished his final game with the Hillbillies with seven total tackles, including a sack and 61 yards on 13 carries. ... Fellow senior Nick Nocek finished with four tackles.