No more frustrations or runner-up plaques. No more long, sad faces at the end of an autumn otherwise full of accomplishment.
At long last, the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake football team is the state Class A champion.
A superb first half on both sides of the ball was more than enough for the Spartans to dispose of Sweet Home (Section VI) 40-20 and claim that elusive title Friday in the Carrier Dome in Syracuse.
It’s the Spartans’ first title in four trips to the state final. And in winning the game, BH-BL (12-1) became the first Section II team in any class to earn a state championship since Amsterdam in 2005, also in Class A.
“You can only dream of it until it happens,” said senior quarterback Ryan McDonnell. “It’s the best feeling in the world.”
“It’s surreal,” said senior captain Nick Marchisiello, an anchor of the Spartans’ offensive line. “Everyone played at a really high level.”
For head coach Matt Shell, who personified BH-BL’s long quest to reach the top, the feeling was similar.
“It’s tough to put into words,” said Shell. “But I’m happy for these kids because they worked so hard for it.”
Every BH-BL player, coach and fan knew about the losses in three of the last four state finals – two of them (2008 and 2009) to Sweet Home, the powerhouse from the Buffalo suburb of Amherst.
Now came the Spartans’ fourth go-round in the Carrier Dome and third title-game encounter with the Panthers, and a determination to get the ending right.
BH-BL wasted little time in taking the lead. The Spartans took the opening kickoff and went 69 yards in seven plays to the end zone. Dan Maynard’s 21-yard run and McDonnell’s 23-yard pass to Eric Dillon set up Maynard’s 3-yard touchdown plunge.
BH-BL struck again late in the first quarter. Facing third-down-and-17 on the Panthers’ 37, McDonnell took advantage of the attention given to Dillon and threw right, catching Dan Nuzzi in mid-stride. Nuzzi took it the rest of the way for a touchdown. Another missed conversion left the score at 12-0.
This was familiar territory for BH-BL, which led Maine-Endwell by double digits in the 2011 state final but could not hold on in a 27-20 defeat. So, it was another bit of bitter history the Spartans had no intention of repeating.
Aided by a Sweet Home roughing-the-passer penalty on third-and-12 that put the ball deep inside Panther territory, McDonnell threw his second touchdown pass of the game with a 20-yard strike to Dillon. This time McDonell’s extra point went through, and BH-BL led 19-0 early in the second quarter.
Throughout the first 18 minutes of game time, the Spartans’ defense held Sweet Home without a first down, swarming to the ball anywhere it went. Penalties helped, too, as a string of them kept the Panthers pinned back deep in its own end, leading to short fields for BH-BL to work with.
“Our defense came up big,” said Shell.
Maynard — who was chosen as the game’s most valuable player — broke free for a 35-yard run later in the second quarter, which led to his second touchdown of the game. This time, he scored from three yards out to put the Spartans ahead 26-0.
Sweet Home started to move the ball late in the second quarter. Starting from their own 18, the Panthers got deep into BH-BL’s territory. But with less than a minute left, linebacker Logan Ball tipped Mike Torrillo’s roll-out pass, and Dan Newell picked it off in the end zone to end the threat.
So completed 24 minutes of total Spartan domination. Maynard gained 82 of BH-BL’s 105 yards on the ground, while McDonnell went five-for-eight for 98 yards through the air. More importantly, the Spartans did not commit a single penalty, while Sweet home had nine flags that cost them 88 yards.
“We came out really fired up,” said Dillon. “Everything was clicking.”
Sweet Home needed something and got it when Jordan Heine returned the second-half kickoff 50 yards to put the Panthers in BH-BL territory. Less than 90 seconds later, Jordan Evert scored on a 6-yard run to close the gap to 26-7.
Two minutes later, Brad Zaffram intercepted McDonnell’s screen pass, but the Panthers gave it right back when Mike McCoy fumbled on the very next play and Ball recovered at Sweet Home’s 45.
That proved to be a key play because the Spartans regained control with another short scoring drive. Dan Porter did the main damage with a 12-yard run where he dragged several tacklers behind him and a 5-yard touchdown run. McDonell’s extra point made the score 33-7.
With more of a cushion, the Spartans could absorb Torrillo’s 45-yard touchdown pass to Zaffram late in the third quarter that cut the lead to 33-14. Josh Quesada wove his way around Sweet Home’s secondary and went 39 yards for BH-BL’s final touchdown, and the lead was 40-14.
The Spartans forced two more Sweet Home turnovers in the fourth quarter. Dillon provided a clincher when he intercepted Torrillo with 7:20 left.
As the final minutes ticked down, the large BH-BL contingent started a “Coach Shell” chant. Given what Shell has gone through on and off the field — including the cancer diagnosis of his son, Jake, in 2009 — no one had to feel better about the Spartans’ emphatic breakthrough than him.
Jake Shell, now 12 and with his cancer in remission, was on the field this night, serving as a ball boy. His presence, said Matt Shell, reminded the coach what it was really about, beyond who won or lost.
After receiving the state championship plaque, the players spent an extensive amount of time with those fans, sharing high-fives and hugs — a catharsis after the heartaches of seasons past.
“We wanted to get this one so badly,” said Dillon. “And it feels so great.”