WHY NOT US? Panthers look to return to Syracuse
HOOSICK, N.Y. -- Most people wouldn't think a bid in the state semifinal wouldn't be old hat, but for the Hoosick Falls Central School football team, Saturday's game against James I. O'Neill marks the third time in four seasons reaching Kingston's Dietz Stadium, site of the semifinal.
But coach Ron Jones is borrowing a line from the 2004 Red Sox regarding his team and their chances.
"Why not us?" said Jones during a practice on Thursday. "That's really the attitude and I can't think of any reasons why not. Let's just go out and see how well we can play."
Hoosick Falls comes into the contest 11-0, squeaking out a 20-12 victory over Section VII champion Saranac Lake in the regional championship last week.
But for O'Neill, reaching this level is unchartered territory. With their victory in the quarterfinals against Woodlands, they became the first Section IX, Class C team to win a state playoff game since 1996.
So, in short, experience favors the Panthers.
"For some of these kids, it's the third time in that game," Jones said. "They get the atmosphere. It was loud last week, it'll be louder [this week]. Playing at 11 [a.m.] will be different, [O'Neill hasn't] done it and we have three of the last four years."
Senior quarterback Billy Pine and senior running back Brad Burns lead the Panthers into the semifinal matchup.
Pine has completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for 1,592 yards and 21 touchdowns and only four interceptions. Burns, after breaking his brother's school rushing record earlier this season, has 1,803 rushing yards and 30 rushing touchdowns. He is just over 10 yards per carry.
"We know it's going to be tough, no big runs," Pine said. "Coach Jones talks about getting those five-yard playoff runs. We've had a goal from sixth grade to win states. At most, we have two games left to play with each other.
"We've wanted that state championship. We've had big dreams and we're trying to live up to it."
O'Neill is 9-2 this season and relies on power football to set the tone. The Raiders' best player is senior running back Jerry Nasi, who has rushed for 1,921 yards and 30 touchdowns.
"They have a dominant running back who is similar to Brad," Jones said. "He's tough to take down and has real good speed."
As Burns did against Saranac Lake with his three second-half scores, Nasi led his team in the quarterfinal, rushing for 228 yards and three touchdowns in their win against Woodlands.
"If we can take away the run, I think they'd be uncomfortable," Jones said. "But it's a hell of a lot easier said then done. I don't think it's realistic to shut down the run."
If they can, they still need to account for quarterback Keegan West. West has completed 54-of-95 passing for 1,285 yards and 13 touchdowns this season.
"They are a physical team and they want to see how tough you are, but when they throw, they want to go play action after lulling you to sleep with run, run, run," Jones said. "Section IX hasnt been here since 1996 or 7, it's always been the Section I [team]. This is one of the best teams in 9 in a long time."
With everything between the two squads similar, Burns and Pine are hoping the gap in experience will make the difference in Hoosick Falls reaching the state final at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse for the first time since 2003.
"Walking in last year as juniors, we were a little overwhelmed in the big stadium," Pine said. "We have to be calm and show that we're not worried. They will be fired up, they haven't been there in a long time."
"A lot of starters played last year, we understand the atmosphere, but it's a big game, you should have nerves," Burns added. "It should help us, maybe shake them up; take it as another game and take the win."
But the stats are against the Panthers: Seven times since 2006, a Section II team has reached the championship game but none has won.
"Again, why not [us]? We play really fast, experienced, smart, make good adjustments, and kids are flexible if we have to change something," Jones said. "Past stats are past, they don't help you win. As far as this week, the Section II team has done better than the Section IX team, but that all means nothing."
And to get to Syracuse, they still need to win on Saturday.
"We've got to think about O'Neill. I remember the great feeling walking off Dietz (when they won in 2003) and I hope to feel it again," Jones said.
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