Lumberjacks face daunting task

Tupper Lake running back Skyler Pickering finds a hole while picking up yards against Canton during a Section X regular season game. The ’Jacks tangle with Moriah tonight at 7 p.m. in Clintonville. (Enterprise photo — Justin A. Levine)

TUPPER LAKE — A week ago, the Tupper Lake Lumberjacks were playing an eight-man football game, due in part to their on-again, off-again struggles of fielding a large enough roster to compete against their usual Section X opponents.

Tonight, the ‘Jacks return to 11-man football, and they couldn’t have a more difficult challenge awaiting. As the lone Class D team in Section X, Tupper Lake automatically advanced to the first round of the state playoffs where it will take on Moriah under the lights at AuSable Valley High School at 7 p.m.

After falling 26-20 in overtime in last week’s eight-man contest against South Lewis of Section III, the Lumberjacks may be playing their final game of 11-man football when they face the state-ranked Vikings, who toppled their previously undefeated rival Ticonderoga 28-22 in the Section VII, Class D final.

Tonight marks the first time Tupper Lake will play in a regular high school football matchup in three weeks. A week ago, the ‘Jacks were on the road for the eight-man game, and the week before that they were unable to play in a scheduled matchup against Massena due to a lack of healthy players, which was the second time a game with the Red Raiders was canceled this season for that reason.

Tupper Lake coach Dennis Klossner said turning to eight-man football may be a viable option to continue offering the sport at the school, and even as early as next year, but first the Lumberjacks have to finish out this season. In the six regular-season games Tupper Lake has played, not counting the eight-man battle, the Lumberjacks have been outscored 286-20. Moriah will be right up at or near the top of the list of the best teams they will have faced.

“We’re never not going to play as long as we are eligible in terms of numbers,” Klossner said. “We go into every year, every season knowing we’ll have a maximum of about 20 kids. If we’re eligible, we’re going to play. The kids want to play. We signed up for this. We don’t want to leave Moriah high and dry, and we didn’t want to leave Massena high and dry — we just didn’t have the numbers.”

Later this month, Klossner and Tupper Lake athletics director Dan Brown will travel to Syracuse to attend a meeting of schools that have competed in eight-man football in an effort to discuss its potential future as an interscholastic sport at Tupper Lake.

“Eight-man is a good possibility at Tupper Lake, and that could be as early as next season, but nothing’s a done deal,” Klossner said. “We’re looking at the best way to try to keep the football program alive at Tupper if 11-man doesn’t work out. There are a lot of small schools like us who have given up football or combined with other teams, and eight-man could allow these schools to keep their identity and continue to keep football alive in small communities across the state. If this works out for us, I really see this as the direction we will be heading in.”

Klossner said his squad will dress 19 players for tonight’s game, which is down two from a week ago after the ‘Jacks lost lineman Jayden LaValley and Aiden Amell with injuries. Despite a formidable opponent looming, a Vikings team that’s 8-1 and ranked 10th in Class C in New York, Klossner said his players know what they will be up against and are looking forward to the challenge.

“Moriah is a good team,” Klossner said. “Our kids know what we’re facing, we’ve watched tape. They are fast and furious, and it’s going to be a tough game.”

In a very difficult season where winning has been basically out of reach, achieving smaller goals has been part of the learning process for Tupper Lake’s gridders this fall.

Tonight, Klossner said he’d be happy to see his offense put together a couple of solid drives against the Vikings. He said in order to do that, the Lumberjacks will attempt to find some room outside instead of attacking in the middle where Moriah is strong in the trenches at at the linebacker positions.

“We’re going to try to play quick and spread it out,” Klossner said. “Moriah is pretty tough up front. Really, we’re looking to throw and try to get to the outside, and I think we can have some success there if we can do that. On defense, we’ll put a five-man front against them and try to slow down their running game.

“Football is a physical game, and we have some tough kids,” Klossner continued. “We’ve just been hurt by numbers. It’s a battle every week, but our kids still look forward to getting out there. They know all about Moriah. They know we’re playing a very good team. Really, our kids are just excited to play one more week.”

The winner of tonight’s game will move into the state Class D quarterfinal round to face the Section II champion, which will be either Greenwich or Cambridge. Those two powers meet Saturday.