Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake has been presented with a unique opportunity.
Not only do the Spartans have a chance to win their first state football championship today, it comes against the same team that denied them New York supremacy a year ago.
“My first goal after we lost the state title game was to get back,” said Burnt Hills senior captain Jacob Meyers. “In the beginning of the year, it’s tough to expect anything. We just said we’ll do our best, and our best turned out to be pretty good.”
Good enough to set up a Class A title-game rematch with Sweet Home at 6 p.m. at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. Both teams show 12-0 records, and the Panthers, from the Buffalo suburb of Amherst, are ranked No. 1 in the state, one spot ahead of the Spartans, just as they were before the 2008 final.
Sweet Home (Section VI) prevailed in that contest, 35-28, as part of its 25-game winning streak. Burnt Hills is 24-1 over its last 25 games.
“You try not to think about it too much,” BH-BL senior quarterback Phil Neumann said of becoming Section II’s first state champion since Amsterdam in 2005. “We’ve got to focus on what we need to do, but there’s no bigger game than this. It’s something we’ve been thinking about as a team and as individuals since last year. It’s something we all want.”
Burnt Hills is the third Section II team to find itself in a back-to-back state title-game rematch. Burnt Hills is hoping to follow the path Troy took when it lost to Fairport in the 1997 Class AA final, and beat the Red Raiders the following year. Rensselaer lost to Caledonia-Mumfort at the Class D level in both 1994 and 1995.
“The biggest thing is the state title, not so much who we’re playing,” said Meyers, a defensive end and tight end. “It would be a great thing to win.”
Burnt Hills has won each of its games this season by double digits, registering a 41-16 state semifinal victory over Cornwall last week and a 54-13 regional triumph over Franklin Academy before that. Sweet Home topped Aquinas in the regionals, 33-7, and Whitesboro in the semis, 36-13.
“Sweet Home, they’re a great team,” said Burnt Hills coach Matt Shell. “It’s an honor to play a team like that. They’re the best out there, and to be the best, you’ve got to go through them.”
“They won the state title last year, and they’re back again,” said Neumann. “That shows how good they are. They’re fast, athletic and talented.”
Enough so to overcome five turnovers in their semifinal win. Six different Panthers were involved in the scoring, including Jahaan Williams, who had a touchdown reception from first-year starting quarterback Pat McMahon and two interceptions, the second which he returned for the clinching score.
“They have big kids, athletic kids,” said Meyers. “As long as we bring our intensity, we should be able to play with them.”
Burnt Hills played its best ball in the second half in last year’s title game after falling behind, 14-0 and 28-7. The loss left Section II 6-19 in state finals, with Troy and Amsterdam two-time winners. Watervliet and Cambridge have also captured state crowns.
“Last year we spotted them a lot of points early, and it was tough to make up that handicap,” said Meyers. “Last week, we came out with good intensity, and we’ve got to do that again. We’ve got to start out hard.”
“We had a plan and stuck with it,” Shell said of last week’s win, in which Evan Nusbaum ran for three touchdowns and 320 yards, and also ended a Cornwall scoring chance with an interception. “We didn’t have great success in our first couple of series, but we ironed some things out, and went with it.”
Burnt Hills built a 21-3 halftime lead against Cornwall, and went up, 47-7, after two quarters against Franklin Academy. The Spartans rallied from a 12-7 halftime deficit against Troy in a 33-18 Section II title-game victory.
“We’ve got to come out early and establish a rhythm,” said Neumann. “We’ve got to put up a couple of scores, and try to keep it going.”
Jack Guba ran for a touchdown against Cornwall, and Brandon Beatty added two more after producing four touchdowns in the regional win over Franklin Academy. Neumann played a key role against Troy with a touchdown run and scoring passes to Nusbaum and Beatty.
“That’s part of being a really great team. We’ve had several guys have great games,” said Neumann, who took over this year for three-year starter Paul Layton, the 2008 Daily Gazette Offensive Player of the Year. “Different guys have stepped up the same way on defense and made big plays. We’ve had interceptions, fumble recoveries and stops on fourth down.”
D.J. Nettles will be among the Sweet Home players Burnt Hills will be focusing on. Nettles scored two touchdowns in last year’s game, his first on a 91-yard reverse, and had another last week against Whitesboro. Ralph Neasman paced the Sweet Home rushing attack in that win with 113 yards and a touchdown.
“Based on last year, we know a little more about them. What they like to do,” said Neumann. “We’re a little more familiar, and that’s a good thing.”
Keaton Flint is the lone returning BH-BL player who scored in last year’s game, reaching the end zone on a reception and run, while Erik Vuillaume also had two touchdowns.
“We’re two different teams,” said Neumann. “We both graduated a lot of guys, and new guys have stepped up for both teams.”
Deshanaro Morris was among Sweet Home’s standouts in the 2008 game, and scored a touchdown to give his team a 35-21 lead. Morris, then a junior, was paralyzed in a car accident just days after the contest.
Burnt Hills will be dedicating today’s contest to Shell’s 8-year-old son Jake, who is battling cancer.
“Jake’s happy when we win,” said Neumann. “When he’s happy, that makes us happy. We’re going to try to do it again for him.”