By JOSH ST.CROIX
The Watertown Red and Black wasn’t bothered by the cold rain, the strong wind, or the Ice Storm on Saturday night.
The Red and Black defense was smothering, the offense was efficient, and the special teams came up with two big plays to help Watertown beat Vermont, 22-8, in the first round of the Empire Football League playoffs at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds.
Watertown improved to 8-3 overall and will travel to top-seeded Plattsburgh (8-2) for a semifinal game at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday.
The Ice Storm ended its season with a 5-6 record.
“Our defense played real aggressive, we came out ready to hit,” Linebacker Matt Kepler said. “The whole season we’ve been coming out slow. We made a pact as a defense to come out right away and hit them. We knew it was going to be a physical game.”
The Red and Black’s defense forced five interceptions, four coming in the second half. It held Vermont scoreless until there was 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, when Watertown had already pulled ahead by three scores.
“Once we started shutting them down, we got the momentum, and guys came up with big picks in big situations for us,” Kepler said.
Josh Cox blocked a punt early in the second quarter to set the Red and Black up at the Vermont 31-yard line. Watertown ended up getting a field goal on the drive to take a 3-0 advantage.
“Special teams is big, we work on it in practice all the time, it’s something you got to have,” Cox said. “We were able to execute and get points on the board.”
Early in the third, C.J. Stevens tackled the Vermont punter at the four-yard line after a botched snap. Harold Taylor ran it in on Watertown’s first play afterward to increase its lead to 16-0.
“I think about the first half and how competitive that was,” Vermont coach Drew Gordon said. “Football games are about making the most of opportunities that you are given. We unfortunately weren’t able to take advantage of our opportunities, and Watertown overcame them and made the most of theirs. That’s always the difference in a football game.”
The Red and Black’s running game was as balanced as it has been all year.
Joe Brennan provided 55 yards and two short touchdown runs on 12 carries, Harold Taylor added 53 yards and a score on 10 attempts, and Anthony Noel ran for a season-high 66 yards on 10 rushes.
“Tonight I just felt good, I wanted to run hard and get this one for Watertown,” Noel said.
The Red and Black can now turn its focus to Plattsburgh, where it will need a similar defensive effort against the highest scoring team in the EFL to advance to the title game for the third time in four years.
“We’re going to come out with a win,” said defensive back Alex Rodriguez, who had one of the team’s five interceptions on Saturday. “I promise you that. The Red and Black is going to win against Plattsburgh.”
The North Stars defeated Watertown, 31-14, on Sept. 22 in Plattsburgh. The Red and Black fell behind early in that game, trailing 24-0 at halftime.
“It’s one of those games where we have to go up there and don’t turn the ball over, and just keep busting people because we have to beat them on their playing field,” Watertown coach George Ashcraft said.
Monroe County (7-3) will play at Syracuse (7-3) in the other semifinal, also scheduled for Saturday.
The EFL championship is slated for Oct. 20 at the field of the highest remaining seed.