ROCHESTER - The Randolph Cardinals had watched the play on film all week.
Over and over and over again.
So with their remarkable football season three yards from probable extinction Friday night, they did just as they had been instructed.
Above, Randolph’s Cody Oldro brings down Tioga’s Tyler Spires during Friday’s Class D west state semifinal football game. Below, Nathan Beaver of the Cardinals pressures Tioga quarterback Ryan Vergason. See additional photos at cu.post-journal.com.
P-J photos by Scott Kindberg
Thanksgiving in Syracuse.
Seniors Nathan Beaver and Dylan Faust stopped Tioga running back Tyler Spires on a two-point conversion run midway through the fourth quarter and the second-ranked Cardinals held on for a 7-6 victory over the top-ranked Tigers in the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class D west semifinal at Sahlen's Stadium.
The win vaults Randolph (10-2) into the championship game, scheduled for noon next Friday at the Carrier Dome, for the third time in eight seasons. Their opponent will be Tuckahoe of Section 1, a 14-12 winner over Section 2's Rensselaer in the east semifinal.
The title game will have to go some to match last night's defensive intensity between the state's top-ranked teams.
''I think both defenses stepped up and played really well,'' Randolph coach Pat Slater said. ''We were both pretty much the same. ... Both defenses played really hard. We did a lot of work this week .. and the kids did their job. They kept coming, kept coming, kept coming. ... All of them. I can't pick out one of them, because our defense is designed for everybody to contribute, and they all did.''
Beaver caught a 16-yard touchdown pass on fourth down from junior quarterback Mitchell Maycock on the Cardinals' first possession and junior Micah Kehoe booted the extra point for what proved to be the game winner.
After that, it was survival of the fittest.
And Randolph, which was 1-2 early in the season, was up to the challenge.
In front the entire game - the Maycock-to-Beaver TD connection came with 9:28 remaining in the first quarter - the Cardinals were on the verge of losing the lead after Spires burst up the middle for a 35-yard touchdown run with 6:10 remaining. Spires, who entered the contest with more than 1,800 rushing yards on the season, was focal point of an offense that averaged more than 400 yards on the ground.
With that as a backdrop, Randolph knew who was going to get the ball on the two-point conversion attempt.
''It was just a power-I,'' Beaver said. ''They put their big guy - their good guard - in the backfield and tried to power it in there. I knew it was coming. I did whatever I could.''
Faust tripped Spires up in the backfield and Beaver finished him off short of the goal line, preserving the Cardinals' one-point lead.
''That was the play to go to,'' maintained Tioga coach Nick Aiello, a 2002 Allegany-Limestone Central School graduate. ''The kids knew that. They've been told in practice that we're going for two if we ever have to win the game and, actually, the play I called was the play to win the game.''
Added Slater: "They go for two all the time. I'd go for two if I was him.''
Still, there were six minutes left and Randolph, which was outgained 212-183, needed to string together a couple first downs to run out the clock.
That's exactly what it did.
First, junior Nick Hettenbaugh's successful recovery of an on-sides kick gave the Cardinals good field position at their own 48. After two runs netted six yards, Maycock recorded the first first down of the drive on a 7-yard keeper. Three straight runs by senior Jordan Dowiasz meant a fourth down and 1 at the Tigers' 32. Dowiasz, whose 35-yard run on the game's second play set up the first-quarter TD , used second effort to gain two yards and the second first down.
''I just tried to find a hole and squeeze it out,'' said Dowiasz, the Cardinals' most valuable offensive player, who finished with 101 yards on 28 carries.
With the clock ticking down toward a minute, senior Alex Miinte secured the win with a five-yard run for another first down. At that point, Slater signaled to Maycock to take a knee, a victory formation he repeated two more times to run out the clock.
''We had one goal and we put it to them,'' said junior linebacker Cody Oldro, who amassed 15 tackles and three assists to earn the most valuable defensive player award. ''It all starts up front with our defensive linemen. They are the guys who help me get my tackles. We play as a team and we win as a team.''
Both teams had opportunities in the first half, but - aside from Beaver's TD reception - neither team could find the end zone.
Tioga (10-2), in fact, was denied touchdowns - two in the first half and one in the second - thanks to a penalty, which nullified a scoring strike, and two outstanding plays by Dowiasz. His first gem came early in the second quarter when Tigers' freshman Jesse Manuel broke free on a 63-yard run that appeared destined for the end zone, but Dowiasz caught him from behind at the Randolph 30. Four plays later, Tioga turned the ball over on downs.
''I saw him take off and I just ran my (butt) off,'' Dowiasz said.
Dowiasz's other game saver came in the third quarter when he tipped away a pass by junior quarterback Ryan Vergason that was intended for senior wide receiver Cleaven Staples.
''I saw the ball coming,'' Dowiasz said, ''and all I got was a fingertip on it. Literally. The tip of my middle finger. That was it.''
Fitting. The game was that close.
''As soon as I saw the clock tick down to zero,'' Dowiasz said, ''the tears started falling down my face. I couldn't help but cry.''
Slater, who received a postgame water-cooler bath, felt the same way.
''It's fortunate you didn't have the camera on me when we won,'' said the veteran coach, who won state titles in 2005 and 2009. ''The tears were coming back big time, I'll tell you.''
NOTES: The defensive numbers for the Cardinals were impressive. In addition to Oldro's heroics, Hettenbaugh had seven tackles, six assists, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery; Beaver had six tackles and three assists; and Faust had six tackles and three assists. ... Manuel had 109 yards rushing and Spires had 105 for the Tigers. ... Spires was his team's most valuable offensive player, while teammate Carter Jackson earned the honors on defense. ... Jake Howland was the Tigers' sportsmanship award winner.
Tioga0 0 0 6 - 6
Randolph7 0 0 0 - 7
Ran-Beaver 16 pass from Maycock (Kehoe kick)
Tioga-Spires 35 run (run failed)