SYRACUSE >> Cazenovia senior TJ Connellan played a key role in his team’s run to the Section III Class B football title before an injury in the championship game against Vernon-Verona-Sherrill prevented him from participating in the state playoffs.
That won’t stop him from launching the biggest celebration in the history of the program.
Connellan returned to the Carrier Dome field where he injured his knee in the final game of Sunday’s State Championship game. Association championship.
“I was like ‘Hey, if we win at the end of the game, you mind if I go out and take the last knee,’” Connellan said. “I’m really honored that the coach let me do it and I’m really happy right now.”
Jake Shaffner had another outstanding outing in his last game in a Lakers uniform, throwing two touchdown passes and rushing for another while handing in a huge sack in third base on Schuylerville’s final possession.
“It’s breathtaking,” he said. “You can’t really put into words the feelings and ideas going through my mind right now. “
Cazenovia’s first state title went to first-year head coach Jay Steinhorst, whose first loss will have to wait at least another season after his Lakers capped a perfect 13-0 campaign. Steinhorst was quick to credit previous coaches Tom Neidl and Paul Stoecker as well as current assistants Mark Evans and Kyle Martin.
“I kind of rolled on their tails for a long time,” said Steinhorst of Neidl and Stocker. “I give these guys a lot of credit and I give the two guys I work with now a lot of credit.”
He added, laughing, “I have nowhere to go except down.”
To grab the title, Cazenovia had to overcome his biggest deficit of the season. Schuylerville managed a 12-game practice on his first possession, but returned the ball to Cazenovia’s 22. The Lakers quickly returned the ball two games later on a fumble that Ben Phillips recovered on the 20. Skyler Bateman scored a meter four games later and the Black Horses led 6-0 after a missed kick. PAT.
The Section II champion forced a 3-and-out on possession that followed and regained his 38 after a punt. Schuylerville sent the ball to the Cazenovia 38 before Will Griffen threw his first pass high over the head of a wide open Zachary Pierce. The senior quarterback returned two games later with a 31-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Tanner Dunkel in the 4th and 1. A fumble on the two-point try kept the score 12-0 in the second quarter. .
Anthony Vecchiarelli got the Lakers offensive in motion, rushing for 25 yards on the first play of the period with 15 yards tacked for a horse collar tackle penalty. Shaffner hit Ben Nichols with a third assist three games later and the 6-3, 205-pound junior bounced off a tackle and scolded in the end zone for a 22-yard touchdown. Cole Willard kicked PAT to bring Cazenovia back to 12-7.
The Lakers ‘defense forced the Black Horses’ first punt on the ensuing possession and took over near midfielder. Cazenovia has reached the end zone in eight games, including a big 27-yard completion from Shaffner to Cody Thorp. Shaffner used a great second effort to score the 4th and the 1 goal, then found Paul McLaughlin with a two-point conversion assist and a 15-12 lead with 5:45 left in the second quarter.
That would be enough time for the Black Horses to take the lead again. A detention penalty put Schuylerville in a 2nd and 32nd position, but Joe Vanderhoof ran for 28 yards on the third down and Griffen converted on the fourth down to extend possession. Cazenovia forced another 4th down and Griffen hit Dunkel again, this time for 33 yards. Phillips threw the PAT kick and Schuylerville took a 19-15 halftime lead.
“We were a little depressed in the locker room at half-time, I thought,” said Steinhorst. “So we did our best to make them vibrate a bit.”
“It’s kind of our mantra over and over again: The most important training in a football match is the first training in the second half.”
It was certainly Sunday. Cazenovia amassed 63 yards in eight games, never facing a third down. Shaffner had 20-yard and 10-yard runs and an 18-yard completion at Cole Willard before finding McLaughlin for a 12-yard touchdown. Willard’s kick gave Cazenovia a 22-19 lead with 8:16 left in the third quarter.
The rest of the contest belonged to the defenses. Cazenovia forced Schuylerville to shoot his only two possessions in the third quarter, but couldn’t generate any attack on his side and took the three-point lead in the final period.
The Lakers got off to a great start in the fourth quarter, converting the 3rd and 9th of their own 11 on a 27-yard pass from Matt Regan to Shaffner. Shaffner then passed a 21-yard pass to Vecchiarelli through the midfield, but the ride ended when the duo connected again on a fourth pass within inches of a first down. Cazenovia’s defense forced a turnover on the possession tries that followed when Dustin Hammond, Brice Basic and Thorp teamed up to make a fourth tackle. Griffen, however, intercepted a pass from Shaffner to give the Black Horses the ball and one last chance to score with 5:20 left. A backstroke penalty block backed Schuylerville, but Griffen completed a 33-yard pass to Anders Hansen in the 3rd and 21st to extend the run. Two games and two Black Horses timeouts later, Shaffner found Griffen in the backfield and grabbed his counterpart’s jersey, dragging him to the ground for a sack and a 25-yard loss.
“He rolled the other way and the whole game had kind of tried to dance a little bit, so I tried to stay back a little bit and wait for him to knock over the pitch,” he said. Shaffner said. “Sure enough he did and took a lot of a step back and I just held on for life.”
McLaughlin hit the fourth down tackle before the first down to give the ball to Cazenovia and the Lakers ran out of time for their first state championship.
“It’s a bit unreal, to tell you the truth,” Steinhorst said. “Our lacrosse kids have done it a few times. They have a killer program just like our field hockey and ice hockey team and I often wondered what that would be like. And there you go, after a few grudge matches, here we are and I’m really proud of my guys.