ROTTERDAM — His senior teammates’ high school football careers had just ended, and Stillwater junior Rhett Mercier stood near midfield leaning on one of them, apologizing that he couldn’t have done more Friday night to keep the Warriors’ program-best season going.
Justyn Kovalsky, that senior, put his arms around Mercier, and didn’t let go of him until he knew the junior understood. All the Warriors, Kovalsky assured Mercier, had done everything they could in their tough, hard-fought 10-2 loss to Gouverneur in the Class C state quarterfinals at Mohonasen High School.
“And I just told him,” Kovalsky said, “that I was so proud of him.”
That was a sentiment Stillwater head coach Ian Godfrey echoed. His Warriors went undefeated for 10 weeks to claim their first-ever Section II tournament championship, and refused to quit Friday night when they had several opportunities to do just that.
Instead, Stillwater just kept battling, play after play.
“I’m extremely proud of our kids. They fought and fought and fought,” Godfrey said. “It came down to the last play, and what else can you ask for in a regional final, but for it to come down to the last play?”
Stillwater struggled offensively through three quarters and trailed 10-0 after a Gouverneur field goal early in the fourth. After that kick, Stillwater put together its best drive of the game, but it was a painful one that ended with three unsuccessful runs from the Gouverneur 1-yard line. The final rush attempt lost a yard, but the two before that — one from senior Mason Seymour, then one from senior James Galarneau — saw the Warriors surge forward, but the ball marked inches short each time.
Godfrey said he had “no comment” after the contest regarding the rush attempts ruled to have ended short of the end zone.
“And no matter what, it’s what the refs say at the end,” Galarneau said. “It’s a game of inches. Sometimes, you come up short.”
“The special thing about this team,” Galarneau added, “is there’s no quit.”
“We knew we could get back in the game,” Kovalsky said. “We knew there was still a shot.”
So, after that controversial, scoreless drive ended with 5:45 to go, Stillwater kept playing. Three plays later, Mercier led a group of Warriors in tackling Gouverneur senior quarterback Caleb Farr in the end zone for a safety to get within 10-2.
“We were just battling for each other,” Galarneau said.
Stillwater’s ensuing possession ended with a turnover on downs after four plays, and Gouverneur took control of the ball near midfield with a little more than three minutes left and appeared ready to run out the clock. Gouverneur quickly gained a first down, but then fumbled a handoff and Mercier pounced on the ball to give Stillwater one last chance with 1:41 to go.
“We just had to remember our training and trust the system. Just keep going,” Mercier said of that final defensive stand. “That’s really all you can do.”
Out of timeouts and starting its final drive at its own 37-yard line, Stillwater managed to run 13 plays and pick up three first downs. From the Gouverneur 23-yard line, though, Galarneau’s final three passes were incomplete, the last of which hit the turf after time had expired.
Early in the second quarter, Stillwater senior Ryan Greene had delivered a big play when he intercepted a Gouverneur pass at the Stillwater 6-yard line.
Farr scored the game’s lone touchdown with a 23-yard less than two minutes into the game. For the contest, Gouverneur outgained Stillwater 315-195. Farr rushed for 157 yards on 29 attempts for Gouverneur, while Galarneau led Stillwater with 114 yards on 19 rushes.
Farr was recognized as Gouverneur’s top offensive player in its regional championship win, while senior Jacob Shippee took his team’s defensive award. Galarneau was named the game’s top offensive player for Stillwater, and senior Brian McNeil earned the Warriors’ defensive award.
Stillwater, which had senior Luc Lescault playing for the last several weeks despite a torn meniscus and MCL in his right knee, dealt with one injury after another against Gouverneur. Senior lineman Cody Hagadorn couldn’t play in the second half because of a right knee injury, a major blow to the Warriors on both sides of the ball. At two different points, Seymour had to limp to the sideline to have his ankles re-taped before charging back onto the field. Galarneau ended the third quarter in pain on the turf, but was ready to go after the break between quarters.
“But that’s these kids. They’re fighters,” Godfrey said. “They’re going to be successful in life because of their character.”
Kovalsky said it the Warriors’ “brotherhood” that made possible their special season. With a smile, Galarneau agreed.
“It was all about looking to your left, looking to your right, and battling for the kids next to you,” Galarneau said.
Gouverneur 7 0 0 3 — 10
Stillwater 0 0 0 2 — 2
G — Farr 23 run (Savage kick)
G — Tyler 25 field goal
S — Safety