SYRACUSE When defensive back Cameron Hall swooped in to break up a fourth down pass intended for Westmorelands Devin Williams deep in Sandy Creek territory late in the fourth quarter Friday night, the weight of an entire community was lifted from the Comets shoulders.
Thirty seconds later, when Sandy Creek quarterback Tyler Swarthout took a knee to run out the clock, the Comets had finally secured an elusive Section 3 football title.
Hall caught a long scoring pass and ran 64 yards for another touchdown, and John Shirley rushed for the eventual winning touchdown with just over four minutes left as top-seeded Sandy Creek (10-0) edged No. 6 Westmoreland 26-21 in the Class D championship game at the Carrier Dome.
Sandy Creek will make its first-ever state playoff appearance at 5 p.m. next Friday at East Syracuse-Minoa High School against Tioga of Section 4. Tioga (9-1) defeated Groton 52-8 Friday.
The Comets, who lost in the section finals two years ago, showed their mettle by overcoming a disastrous start to the second half to beat the Bulldogs for the second time this season.
The grit and character of his team was enough to bring Sandy Creek coach Mike Stevens, who graduated from the school in 1984, to tears.
The community and the coaches put a lot of pressure on these kids, Stevens said. We hadnt faced a lot of adversity this year, so we werent quite sure how they would handle it. But the kids just dug deep down and found a way to win.
I have no words to describe this feeling, said Shirley, who rambled eight yards untouched for the winning points. Since that loss two years ago weve worked really hard to reach this point. We werent going to let a few minutes take it away from us.
Sandy Creek led 14-7 at halftime, scoring two second-quarter touchdowns on a 42-yard pass from Swarthout to Hall and a Mason McNitt 24-yard run after Westmoreland opened the scoring in the first quarter. Both scores came after Westmoreland fumbles.
But after going three and out on its first series of the second half, Sandy Creek suffered through its most challenging period of the entire season.
After a long punt return, Westmoreland quarterback Zach Green sprinted 17 yards for a score, and his PAT made it 14-14.
A minute later, Green picked up a fumble of a center snap over Swarthouts head and raced 19 yards to the end zone and then converted.
In a game where the teams are pretty equal, we knew turnovers and/or penalties would make the difference, Stevens said. The kids just shrugged it off and went back to work.
It took just 13 seconds for Sandy Creek to respond. Hall swept left end and sprinted untouched for a 64-yard score.
We run that play in practice a lot and it almost always works, Hall said.
However, Swarthouts PAT was wide after a Sandy Creek penalty, and the Comets still trailed 21-20.
The Sandy Creek defense then held Westmoreland on three consecutive possessions.
Shirley was running free in the Westmoreland secondary when he fumbled at the Bulldogs 28 with 5 1/2 minutes left. But Hall intercepted a Green third-down pass and returned it 37 yards. On the next play, Shirley got great blocking on the left side and scored easily.
I didnt protect the ball well enough on that fumble, Shirley said. Im thankful coach gave me the ball again.
Westmoreland still had time for a game-winning drive, but was forced to use its final two timeouts. Facing a fourth-and-5 from the Sandy Creek 25 with 40 seconds left, Green felt pressure and fired down field.
Said Hall: I read the tight end all the way and just batted it away.
Westmoreland coach Tim Gates said, That play was successful in the first half. Zach just didnt have enough time to get the ball down the field that far.
Linebacker Jake Benedict led the Sandy Creek defense with 13 tackles, while Kyle Fayette, Zac Akey, Matt Ennist and Brett Wolfe were credited with six tackles each.
There was no way we were going to hang our heads and lose, Swarthout said. Because we wanted to keep playing.