PICKETTS CORNERS - After soundly defeating every opponent on the way to finishing the Champlain Valley Athletic Conference with a 7-0 record, the focus of Saranac Lake's football team has turned to tuning up for the playoffs.
The Red Storm actually seemed to be kicking into playoff mode on Saturday when they ended the CVAC schedule with a 42-11 victory at Saranac Central.
On offense, Saranac Lake took to the air as quarterback Matt Phelan threw four touchdown passes and a season-high 253 yards, while the Red Storm's starting defense continued its domination. Seven games into the season, Saranac Lake's first-team defenders still haven't given up any points.
Saranac Lake safety Kevin Morgan moves into to break up a pass thrown to Saranac receiver Lance Hackett during the first quarter of Saturday’s game.
(Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)
Saranac Lake junior running back Derek Thurber rambles forward for yardage during Saturday’s game at Saranac Central.
(Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)
"Throwing the football was definitely part of the plan," said Saranac Lake senior Mike Burpoe, who was on the receiving end of three Phelan touchdown passes. "When we get into bigger games, we are going to need to get our passing game going. I thought we did a great job today."
After the Red Storm defense forced the Chiefs to go three-and-out on the game's opening possession, Burpoe scored on Saranac Lake's first offensive play, hauling in a Phelan pass on a crossing route and sprinting 56 yards for a touchdown. Replacing an injured Seth Pickreign, Derek Thurber notched the conversion kick for a 7-0 Saranac Lake lead just 1:52 into the game.
Senior safety Kevin Morgan picked off a pass by quarterback Zach Lareau on Saranac's next possession, which set up the Red Storm at the Chiefs' 42. Saranac Lake couldn't advance and punted, with the kick being downed at the Saranac 7-yard line. After Chiefs fullback Kevin Jordan was stopped for no gain on first down, Burpoe sacked Lareau in the end zone for a safety on the next play to put the Red Storm on top 9-0.
Saranac Lake went on to score touchdowns on its next four possessions, starting with Morgan's 12-yard reception on a fourth-and-goal pass from Phelan. The senior quarterback then sprinted 18 yards for a score the next time the Red Storm offense was on the field, which gave his team a 23-0 edge with 26 seconds remaining in the opening quarter.
Burpoe followed, catching an 11-yard touchdown pass from Phelan 3:21 into the second quarter, and senior running back Guy Grebe ran for a 2-yard score midway through the period to cap off a 53-yard Red Storm drive and send them into halftime on top 36-0.
The Red Storm got their final points of the game early in the third quarter when Burpoe caught a 4-yard touchdown pass. The score lifted Saranac Lake into a 42-0 lead and also brought the Red Storm's back-up units onto the field to finish out the game.
The Chiefs finally got on the board when junior running back Michael Bernardi ran 34 yards for a touchdown late in the third quarter, and Jordan added two points on a conversion run. Saranac tacked on three more points on the game's last play when Tony Bushey booted a 26-yard field goal.
Phelan completed 15 of his 20 pass attempts while spreading the ball out to seven different receivers. Burpoe was the top pass catcher on the day, finishing with five receptions and 75 yards. Morgan's scoring reception gave him a CVAC-best 10 touchdown catches, and Phelan also led the league in scoring strikes with 14. He has only been intercepted once this season.
Saranac Lake also brought up freshman quarterback Tristin Fitzgerald from the junior varsity for the game to replace his older brother Trent, who is out injured. In his first game backing up Phelan, Tristin Fitzgerald completed 3 of 4 pass attempts for 16 yards.
Heading into the season, the Red Storm players knew they could put points on the board, but Saranac Lake's defense has been equally exceptional. On Saturday, Saranac Lake's defense held the Chiefs to just five yards gained in the opening quarter and only gave up 25 yards of total offense in the first half. The Chiefs finished the game with 92 yards of total offense, including just 23 yards passing.
"Our coaches, our players, we spent the entire offseason working on our defense," Bennett said. "We watched all kinds of film, we talked to college coaches, we worked it from all angles.
"We really haven't had our first-team defense scored on all year, and that's a testament to coach Matt Raymond and the kids," Bennett added. "I'm sure they will be scored on coming up. That's when the real test begins."
Saranac Lake wraps up the regular season at home Saturday, facing Moriah for the second time on the schedule. The opening kickoff at Ken Wilson Field is slated for 1:30 p.m. In two weeks, the Red Storm will host the Section VII, Class C championship game against AuSable Valley.
Although Saranac Lake has outscored its opponents 286-62 while posting a 7-0 record, concern is beginning to mount on the team while injuries start to pile up. On Saturday, another lineman, Kyle McGrain left the game early with a knee injury on an already depleted roster.
"We are thin," Bennett said. "We need to keep our kids healthy."
Saranac Lake 42, Saranac 11
SL - Burpoe 56 pass from Phelan (Thurber kick), 1:52
SL - Safety, 6:01
SL - Morgan 12 pass from Phelan (Thurber kick), 7:11
SL - Phelan 18 run (Thurber kick), 11:34
SL - Burpoe 11 pass from Phelan (Thurber kick), 3:21
SL - Grebe 2 run (Kick missed), 7:56
SL - Burpoe 4 pass from Phelan (Kick missed), 1:22
S - Bernardi 34 run (Jordan run), 11:10
S - Bushey 26 field goal, 12:00
Saranac Lake - Thurber 6-25, Phelan 5-14 TD, Grebe 9-60 TD, Leahy 2-3, Monroe 1-5, D. Strack 2-(-6), Fitzgerald 1-(-8). Totals: 26-93 2TDs.
Saranac - Bernardi 17-66 TD, Lareau 8-(-12), Jordan 4-3, Herrera 3-10, Kneussle 1-2. Totals: 33-69 TD.
Saranac Lake - Phelan 15-20-0-253 4TDs, Tristin Fitzgerald 3-4-0-16. Totals: 18-24-0-269.
Saranac - Lareau 5-15-2-23. Kneussle 0-2-0-0. Totals: 5-17-2-23.
Saranac Lake - Burpoe 5-75 3TDs, Morgan 3-64 TD, Leahy 2-19, McCabe 2-9, Monroe 1-1, Thurber 1-31, Grebe 1-54, D. Strack 2-13, Fischer 1-3.
Saranac - Bernardi 1-0, Hackett 4-23.
Saranac Lake - Morgan, Fischer.