SARANAC LAKE - For the first time this season, Saranac Lake's football team had a scare thrown its way. That turned out to be a good thing for the unbeaten Red Storm, which had previously had their way with every other opponent until Moriah visited Ken Wilson Field on Saturday.
After getting blown out 41-6 by Saranac Lake during the second week of the season, the Vikings became the first team to lead the Red Storm when they jumped ahead 8-7 in the first quarter of Saturday's rematch. Facing their first deficit, the Red Storm responded with five of the game's next six touchdowns to claim a 41-16 victory over Moriah.
The opening two quarters were hard-hitting and tense, with Saranac Lake holding a 20-16 edge at intermission. The Red Storm then took control, scoring the only points of the second half on three third-quarter touchdowns to pull away in the crossover game and finish the Champlain Valley Athletic Conference season with an 8-0 record.
Saranac Lake senior receiver Kevin Morgan leaps above Moriah defender Cole Gaddor to haul in a 29-pass completion from quarterback Matt Phelan on the first possession of Saturday’s game. The Red Storm scored on the next play and eventually pulled away for a 41-16 victory.
(Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)
"All year, we have been able to score early, get big leads, and feel pretty good about ourselves," Saranac Lake head coach Eric Bennett said. "We certainly had our backs to the wall today. Until today, our first-team defense hadn't been scored on, and we've never been behind on the scoreboard. The second half was a pivotal point in our season. I like how our guys came through."
Quarterback Matt Phelan, running backs Lance Ackerson and Seth Pickreign and receiver Kevin Morgan had big days offensively for the Red Storm. Phelan ran for two touchdowns and threw for another, Ackerson rushed for a pair of scores and Pickreign broke loose on an 82-yard touchdown run. After being scored on for the first time this season - not once, but twice -Saranac Lake's starting defense blanked the Vikings the rest of the way before giving way to the backups, including a slew of players who moved up from the junior varsity.
The game started about the same way it has each week for Saranac Lake. The Vikings opened with the ball, and three plays into the possession, they fumbled and Red Storm lineman Kellen Munn made the recovery at the Moriah 39-yard line. It took just two plays for Saranac Lake to reach the end zone, with Phelan throwing a 29-yard completion to Morgan and Ackerson following with a 10-yard touchdown run. Derek Thurber notched the conversion kick and Saranac Lake was on top 7-0 with 1:51 gone into the game.
Moriah answered right back, with junior Cameron Wright, the leading rusher in the CVAC, doing most of the damage. Starting with the ball at their own 39, the Vikings drove 61 yards in six plays, with quarterback Cole Gaddor tossing an 8-yard touchdown pass to Bill Petro. Wright ran for 55 yards on four carries during the march, with his biggest gain coming on a 46-yard run to the Red Storm 7-yard line. After the touchdown Gaddor completed a two-point conversion pass to Petro for an 8-7 Vikings lead, which left Saranac Lake trailing for the first time this season.
The Vikings regained possession at midfield on the ensuing kickoff when the ball bounced off a player on the Red Storm's receiving team and into the hands of kicker Tom Rancour. But three plays later the Red Storm defense got a turnover when Craig Leahy intercepted Gaddor, which set up Saranac Lake's offense at its own 49. Saranac Lake advanced to Moriah's 28, but Phelan was sacked for a 12-yard loss, and after an incompletion on third down, the Red Storm punted the ball away.
Pinned at their own 13, the Vikings couldn't move and punted, which gave Saranac Lake good field position at its own 48. Moriah was flagged for an offside penalty that moved the Red Storm to the Vikings 47-yard line. Ackerson then got the ball to the end zone on three consecutive runs, picking up 13 on first down, gaining 1 on a second-down carry and then breaking free for a 33-yard touchdown run on the first play of the second quarter that put Saranac Lake back on top 13-8.
Saranac Lake also scored on its next possession, going 73 yards in three plays with Morgan getting the touchdown on a 50-yard pass play from Phelan.
Trailing 20-8, the Vikings answered with their second touchdown, marching 71 yards in 11 plays. Their touchdown came on a 22-yard toss from Gaddor to Rainier Garnica, who made a leaping catch over Pickreign near the goal line on Moriah's side of the field. Garnica actually landed on his back shot of the end zone but the play was still ruled a touchdown. Garnica then made another catch on the conversion pass, which put the Vikings right back in the game, trailing 20-16 with 17 seconds left in the half.
After a closely contested first half, Saranac Lake looked more like the team it has been all season after intermission. The Red Storm scored on three of their four possessions of the third quarter, starting with a 30-yard touchdown run by Phelan to cap off a 62-yard march. Both offenses went three-and-out on their next set of plays, and Saranac Lake then kept to the ground on a 78-yard drive to the end zone. The Red Storm offense covered the distance in just four plays, with Ackerson grinding out 17 yards on two carries, and Phelan finishing the march with a 48-yard scamper followed by an 11-yard touchdown run.
With a now-comfortable 34-16 lead, Saranac Lake rounded out the scoring when Pickreign sprinted along the Moriah sideline on an 82-yard touchdown and followed with the conversion kick on a day he went 4-for-4 on extra points after taking over for Thurber.
"When we went into the shed at halftime, Mr. Bennett told us 'I'm not going to get mad at you. You have to execute,'" Ackerson said. "And that's what we did in the second half. We were in position during the first half, but we weren't making the plays. After halftime, we did the little things right."
Ackerson, who ran for 76 yards on 10 carries, credited Phelan for getting Saranac Lake's offense on track after halftime.
"Matt is the driving force of our offense," Ackerson said. "He can run, he can pass, and when we need something to happen, he makes it happen. He's the best quarterback in the league. Matty's always there when we need him."
Phelan topped the game in combined yards, running for 97 on six attempts and completing 7-of-10 pass attempts for 150 yards. Morgan led the game in receiving, gaining 103 yards on just three catches.
"Finally, someone came to play us," Morgan said. "I think we really underestimated Moriah after we beat them the first time. They really brought it today, and I was excited about that. It's something we really needed before our playoff run."
Wright led all running backs in the game, gaining 105 yards on 20 carries for the Vikings, who finished the regular season at 3-5 and now play Ticondeorga for the Section VII, Class D championship. Despite the loss, the Vikings are hoping Saturday's performance against the Red Storm could give them some momentum heading into the matchup.
"We moved the ball against the best defensive team in the league," Moriah coach Don Tesar said. "When you play Saranac Lake, you don't want them to have the football. We wanted to eat up the clock seven and eight minutes at a time, because they can score in one play at any time.
"We executed our running game in the first half, we just haven't done that for a full four quarters," Tesar added. "Our only losses have been to the big schools and Ti, and hopefully we can beat them. We gave Saranac Lake a scare today."
"Moriah is a vastly improved team from week two," Bennett said. "As a team that pounds the ball, they get battle hardened as the year goes on. This was the type of game we needed."
Saranac Lake now enters the playoffs and will next host AuSable Valley Saturday for the Section VII, Class C title with the opening kickoff scheduled for 1 p.m. The winner of that game will play on the Patriots turf field in two weeks against Ogdensburg, the Section X, Class C champion.
"It's great, it's awesome being 8-0 right now," Bennett said. "But after the game, we asked our kids what our record is. We all know it's 0-0. It's a new season. When you lose, you are done, and we want to keep playing football."
Saranac Lake 41, Moriah 15
SL Ackerson 10 run (Thurber kick), 1:51
M - Petro 8 pass from Gaddor (Petro pass from Gaddor), 5:08
SL - Ackerson 33 run (Kick failed), :10
SL - Morgan 50 pass from Phelan (Pickreign kick), 6:24
M - Garnica 22 pass from Gaddor (Garnica pass from Gaddor), 11:43
SL - Phelan 30 run (Pickreign kick), 2:02
SL - Phelan 11 run (Pickreign kick), 7:42
SL - Pickreign 82 run (Pickreign kick), 10:14
Moriah - Wright 20-105, Whalen 4-11, Gilbo 1-(-1), Nadeau 5-2, Gaddor 6-3, Adkins 1-2, Greenough 1-(-1), Nephew 4-(-2), Welch 2-5, Petro 1-4. Totals: 45-129.
Saranac Lake - Ackerson 10-76 2TDs, Pickreign 3-83 TD, Phelan 6-97 2TDs, Grebe 2-4, Thurber 1-6, Kilner 2-(-7), Ryan 2-5, Strack 2-14, Fitzgerald 1-(-8). Totals: 29-270 5TDs.
Moriah Gaddor 3-7-1-37 2TDs.
Saranac Lake - Phelan 7-10-0-150 TD, Pickreign 0-1-1-0, Fitzgerald 3-4-0-12. Totals: 10-15-1-162 TD.
Moriah - Petro 1-8 TD, Garnica 1-22 TD, Whalen 1-7.
Saranac Lake - Morgan 3-104 TD, Burpoe 3-24, Ackerson 1-10, Myckeal 1-2, Murnane 1-6, Marmion 1-4.
Moriah - Gaddor.
Saranac Lake - Leahy