Assistant Sports Editor
HOOSICK, N.Y. -- Their defense reeling after James I. O'Neill stormed to a 21-7 lead in the opening quarter of last Saturday's Class C state semifinal in Kingston, Hoosick Falls Central School coordinator Chris Fleming turned to assistant Eamonn DeGraaf.
Only one thing mattered: How were they going to stop the Raiders for three more quarters?
"I didn't panic at all," Fleming said. "Just knowing these kids, I said let's not change a lot of stuff. Let's believe in what we've been working on all week and know that it's a resilient group of guys that just don't quit.
"We put our trust in them and they delivered."
The Panthers' defense rebounded from its lowest point of the season with its finest hour, pitching a shut out for the final three quarters. Once their offense got on track -- buoyed by five takeaways -- the resulting 43-21 victory had Hoosick Falls celebrating a ticket to the state championship game.
"A lot of us last year played at Dietz [Stadium], so we know what losing feels like and we didn't want that to happen," senior Grady Beck said. "We knew, being in the hole, 21-7, we really had to buckle down ... and that's what we did."
Unflappable, tough, fast, intelligent -- the Panthers' defense channeled all of its core traits to deny the same O'Neill offense that became the only team to score on them in the first quarter this season.
"It's a testament to these guys' character and how competitive they are, how physically tough they are, because we were out-sized," said Hoosick Falls head coach Ron Jones.
Even after O'Neill's 21 points, Hoosick Falls (12-0) has held foes to a shockingly low 6.4 points per game this season, plenty of protection for an explosive offense that puts up nearly 44 points a contest.
And with 25 fumble recoveries and 21 interceptions, takeaways have played a starring role in the Panthers' defensive success this season. Against O'Neill, Hoosick forced a fumble on a goal-line stand in the second quarter that helped turn a potential 28-14 deficit into a 22-21 lead minutes later.
"Last week, the turnover on the 1-yard line was huge, when we ripped the ball out," Fleming said. "I think it started our run, because the offense went down  yards [to score] and our defense started clicking after that.
"We made a few small adjustments but mostly it was the kids finding that game speed and how tough James I. O'Neill was and stepping up to the challenge," he said.
It was a shining example of the Panthers' ability to get tacklers to the ball and their opportunistic nature.
"We stuffed them at the line and once all our guys got there we started ripping at the ball and it popped out," said defensive back Josh Brogue, who has four interceptions on the year.
"It was such a momentum swing. They weren't able to recover from it," said Beck, fourth on the team with 62 tackles.
Fleming said a typical week of preparation starts with five or six hours of film breakdown on Sunday, analyzing the Panthers' most recent game and the next opponent. He and DeGraaf insert the defensive gameplan on Tuesday, leaving Jones free to focus on scoring points.
"I don't do any defense," Jones said. "I'm to the point, I know they know what they're doing, they're excellent at their job."
Hoosick Falls has held the opposition to just 104 yards rushing and 84 yards passing per game. Quarterbacks have completed only 45 percent of their passes against the Panthers.
"I think the biggest thing is these guys love to gobble up the information we give them every week. We never have to worry about these guys not knowing the gameplan," Fleming said.
Sturdy in backstopping a 20-12 win over Saranac Lake in the regional final, a second straight comeback -- including the goal-line stand and more dominant play in the second half -- has the Hoosick Falls defense looking every bit the state finalist that it is.
"Those are things that are required to be a championship team and we checked those off the list," Jones said.
The final proof would be a victory against mighty Hornell in the title game Saturday in Syracuse. Getting this far, the Panthers have already shown the power of their defensive unity.
"It just says we trust our teammates. We know what they're going to do each play, they're going to get into their gaps, pursue to the ball," Brogue said. "We just trust them."