CLINTONVILLE - Success hasn't come nearly as easily for the Saranac Lake football team this fall like it did for the last three Red Storm squads that won three straight Section VII titles while compiling a 28-4 record.
Heading into Saturday's Class C championship game against Saranac Central, Saranac Lake had already suffered as many losses during the season as it did over the past three years. Two of those came in the Red Storm's last two games.
But when it came down to crunch time, the Red Storm showed again they still can get the job done by rallying to a 30-28 victory over the Chiefs.
A jubilant Dan Strack reacts after Saranac Lake’s 30-28 come-from-behind victory over Saranac Central in Saturday’s Section VII, Class C championship game played in the rain at AuSable Valley High School. Strack had one touchdown catch in the game to help the Red Storm earn its fourth straight sectional title.
(Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)
In what proved to be one of three down-to-the wire championship contests played on a soggy Saturday at AuSable Valley High School, Saranac Lake scored the winning points on Dylan Gunther's 25-yard touchdown reception with 1:03 remaining in the game.
With Brad Maye, the leading rusher in the Champlain Valley Athletic Conference, leading the way, Saranac scored three touchdowns in the second quarter to carry a 21-15 lead into intermission. But after halftime, the Red Storm held the Chiefs to just seven points to claim the come-from behind win.
With the victory, Saranac Lake improved to 5-4 and now faces Ogdensburg Friday in a Class C North Country Super Bowl matchup in Massena.
"On a rainy night, the sun was shining on us," Saranac Lake head coach Eric Bennett said. "To come out victorious after the ups and downs we've been through this season is very gratifying.
"There's that quote that football doesn't build character, it shows character," Bennett continued. "Our kids showed tremendous character today. They were extremely resilient."
Playing without captain and two-way starter Lance Ackerson, the Red Storm had to rely on speed, execution, heart and even a bit of trickery against a Chiefs team that had its way during a 34-13 regular-season win over Saranac Lake.
The speed came in the form of Gunther, who scored a pair of touchdowns. The trickery appeared on a touchdown pass from Tristin Fitzgerald to Dan Strack late in the first half on a play where Strack lined up at an offensive tackle position. Execution came in part from a Red Storm secondary that only allowed one completion and picked off two passes, including one returned for a touchdown. And although the Red Storm gave it their all for the entire contest, they really dug down deep on the game-winning drive after the Chiefs regained the lead with less than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
The Red Storm got off to a good start by forcing a Saranac punt on the game's opening possession and marching into the end zone the first time they got their hands on the football. Starting at their own 20, and benefitting from an interference call, the Red Storm covered the distance in eight plays, with Gunther scoring on a 35-yard run and Ty Marmion following with the conversion kick for a 7-0 Red Storm edge with 8:54 gone in the game.
Saranac answered with the game's next touchdowns, scoring on two consecutive possessions, with Maye reaching the end zone on runs of three and 34 yards for a 14-7 lead. The Red Storm then got a 22-yard field goal from Marmion to cut their deficit to 14-10. The Chiefs, however, marched in for their third touchdown to make it three scores in as many second-quarter possessions, with Maye crossing the goal line on a 12-yard run for a 22-10 Saranac lead with 1:57 left in the half.
In a game filled with multiple momentum shifts, Saranac Lake scored the final points of the first half, driving 66 yards with Strack capping off the march with a touchdown catch on a 14-yard pass thrown by Tristin Fitzgerald. On the play, all of Saranac Lake's receivers were lined up wide on the right side of the field with Strack positioned tight on the left side. Heading into the end zone uncovered, Strack made the easy catch of a perfectly lofted pass from Fitzgerald with 43 seconds left in the half to cut the Chiefs edge to 21-16.
The Red Storm took its first lead since the first quarter when Dustin Fischer picked off a pass from Ethan Goslin and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown with 3:50 gone in the second half. Gunther added two points on a conversion run, putting Saranac Lake ahead 24-21.
With time dwindling in the fourth quarter, the Chiefs jumped back in front with a 52-yard, five-play drive capped off by Maye's 1-yard touchdown run with 4:23 left on the game clock. Paul Herrera, who was 4-for-4 on conversion kicks, notched the extra point for a 28-24 Saranac lead.
Just after Maye scored his fourth touchdown, the steady rain got heavier to add a little more drama to Saranac Lake's late-game heroics.
Facing a potential end to the season, the Red Storm began with the ball at their own 31. Ten plays later, Saranac Lake was in the end zone when Gunther caught a pass from Fitzgerald on an out pattern and crossed the goal line untouched on a 25-yard touchdown play with 1:03 left in the game. Marmion's conversion kick was off the mark, leaving the Red Storm clinging to a 30-28 lead.
Now with their season on the line, the Chiefs started in great field position after Maye returned the ensuing kickoff 39 yards to his team's own 47. Goslin was dropped for a 3-yard loss on first down, and Maye then carried the ball for a 10-yard gain into Red Storm territory. But on third down, Maye launched a pass downfield, and Gunther was there to make the interception to clinch the win for Saranac Lake.
After allowing Maye to run for 174 yards and three touchdowns in the first half, the Red Storm held the senior in check for most of the second stanza. After intermission, Maye picked up just 45 yards on 15 carries in a game that saw Goslin attempt just four passes.
"We got a lecture at halftime," Gunther said. "We were told if you don't play defense, you don't win championships. I guess we did a pretty good job after halftime."
Gunther led Saranac Lake's offense with 79 yards rushing on seven carries and 75 receiving yards on five catches. With Ackerson not in the backfield, senior Trent Fitzgerald was called on to pound the football up the middle for Saranac Lake, and he finished with 86 yards on 13 carries.
Maye was the top offensive player, running for 220 yards on 33 attempts in his final game in a Chiefs uniform.
"Saranac Lake just made one more play than we did," Saranac head coach Mark Burrell said. "Gunther is a good athlete and once he got around the corner, he was gone. Their quarterback put up a nice ball to him.
"I think we really turned it around for our football program this year," Burrell added. "There was a point when were were 2-4 and our guys decided they were going to make a run. I'm proud of every one of them."
The Chiefs finished their season with a 4-5 record.
Trent Fitzgerald, who was out of the lineup injured during much of Saranac Lake's 2012 campaign and has been dealing with a bad knee this year, said his team never gave up.
"It's been a struggle for us all season, but we just kept fighting," he said. "Today, we had a scheme, we stuck to it and gave it our all. We pounded the ball for the most part and passed when we had the opportunity. This is the best feeling in the world. You feel no pain when you are a champion."
The 5-4 Red Storm will now face Section X, Class C champion Ogdensburg, which which upset previously unbeaten Potsdam 28-26 in overtime Friday. The Blue Devils bring an 8-1 record into the game, with the winner moving into the state quarterfinals against the Section II champion in two weeks.
Saranac Lake 30, Saranac Central 28
SL - Gunther 35 run (Marmion kick), 8:54
S - Maye 3 run (Herrera kick), 1:19
S - Maye 34 run (Herrera kick), 4:17
SL - Marmion 22 field goal, 7:57
S - Maye 12 run (Herrera kick), 10:03
SL - Strack 14 pass from Tri. Fitzgerald (Kick failed), 11:18
SL - Fischer 26 interception return (Gunther run), 3:50
S - Maye 1 run (Herrera kick), 7:37
SL - Gunther 25 pass from Tri. Fitzgerald (Kick failed), 10:57
Saranac Lake - Fischer 1-(-2), Tre. Fitzgerald 13-86, Tri. Fitzgerald 12-38, Gunther 7-79 TD, Marmion 1-(-6). Totals: 34-192 TD.
Saranac - Maye 33-220 4TDs, Church 2-3, Goslin 9-64, Hackett 1-8. Totals: 45-295 4TDs.
Saranac Lake - Tri. Fitzgerald 9-13-0-94 2TDs.
Saranac - Goslin 1-5-2-4.
Saranac Lake - Gunther 5-75 TD, Fischer 1-(-4), Strack 2-14 TD, Marmion 1-9.
Saranac - Kneussle 1-4.
Saranac Lake - Fischer, Gunther.