SARANAC LAKE - It's title time for high school football in the North Country, and Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake are both looking to claim one in championship games being played this weekend.
The Lumberjacks and Red Storm will clash with familiar foes they faced when teams from sections X and VII used to play in the combined Northern Football Conference. But with the end of that merger, the teams will meet for the first time this season in do-or-die situations.
Tupper Lake kicks off the action tonight against Moriah for the Section X-VII Class D crown in a game being played under the lights at Massena High School starting at 7 p.m. Unbeaten Saranac Lake will then look to nail down its third straight Section VII-X Class C championship when it takes on Ogdensburg Saturday at AuSable Valley beginning at 1 p.m.
With Lance Ackerson, left, and Kellen Munn providing pass protection, Saranac Lake quarterback Matt Phelan looks for a receiver during the Red Storm’s 40-6 victory over AuSable Valley in the Section VII, Class C championshp game last Saturday. Phelan tossed six touchdown passes in the contest.
(Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)
As tailback Jeremy Roussel (41) picks up speed looking to block, junior quarterback Mitch Keniston tucks the ball on on a running play during Tupper Lake’s home victory over St. Lawrence last week.
(Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)
The winner of each matchup will advance into the state quarterfinal round, while the losing teams are done for the season.
As the only Class D team in Section X, the Lumberjacks knew before the season started that they would be playing either Moriah or Ticonderoga this weekend in a crossover sectional championship game. The Vikings settled that question a week ago with 16-6 win over the Sentinels to claim the Section VII, Class D title.
The 'Jacks are coming off an 18-9 loss to Massena and head into the game with a 3-6 mark, while the Vikings enter the matchup at 4-5. The majority of losses each team suffered this season came at the hands of the bigger schools in their respective sections.
"It will be good to play Moriah again," Tupper Lake head coach Dennis Klossner said. "We've had a bit of a rivalry with them over the years, it's almost like we're old friends. They have a great coach in Don Tesar and their kids love to play football.
"We are both D schools, and this game is a matter of who is better prepared," Klossner added. "I'm very happy with how our kids have been playing. Our kids are confident, our coaches are confident and we just can't wait to play."
Tupper Lake's defense will have to find a way to slow down junior Cameron Wright, who was Section VII's top ground gainer this season. The workhorse of the Moriah offense, Wright ran for 262 yards on 42 carries in last week's win.
"He's a real good runner, a tough runner who carries the ball 30, 40 times a game," Klossner said of Wright. "He doesn't wear down. He seems to get stronger as the game wears on, but if we do our job, I feel we can slow him down."
On offense, Klossner said the Lumberjacks will need to find ways to get its passing attack going against a Vikings defense that held what was a potent Sentinels running game to just 51 yards a week ago. After taking over for injured starter Morgan Stevens two games into the season, Mitch Keniston has guided the Tupper Lake offense at quarterback. The junior has completed 40 of 94 pass attempts for six touchdowns and has been intercepted five times. Keniston is also the top ground gainer for the 'Jacks with 486 yards and four touchdowns on 91 carries. Keniston had his most productive running game last week, picking up 138 yards.
Junior tailback Jeremy Roussel is second on the team in rushing with 398 yards on 89 attempts.
"I was very impressed with how Moriah's defense shut down Ti's running game. They put a lot of people in the box," Klossner said. "We've been working on our passing game this week. It's very important we get it going early so we can run the football.
"Moriah always steps it up when it comes to playoffs," Klossner added. "I think our kids are ready for the challenge. Overall, I've been very happy with how we've improved and how we've played. We've gotten better and better, but we'll have to play well all four quarters. Our kids are confident, our coaches are confident, and we can't wait to play. It's a championship game."
Red Storm look to keep on rolling
All season long, Saranac Lake has basically been a well-tuned machine while cruising through its Section VII schedule and a 9-0 record. On Saturday, the Red Storm will look to continue the roll and advance to the state Class C regional round, and the Ogdensburg Blue Devils stand in the way.
Saranac Lake captured the Section VII title a week ago, topping AuSable Valley 40-6 in a game that saw senior quarterback Matt Phelan throw six touchdown passes, including three to wideout Kevin Morgan, another one of the many talented seniors on both sides of the ball for the Red Storm.
"At this point, everybody knows their role. They are contributing in their own way and it's working," Saranac Lake head coach Eric Bennett said. "It's great when you are done with the game and have seven players make catches and eight run with the ball. This year, it's always been about the team, and that's been clear since week one. Everyone has been doing their part.
"We are healthy and ready to roll," Bennett added. "We're are looking to go 2-0 and we are focused on winning a Section VII-X championship. As coaches, we are looking forward to seeing our kids get at it on Saturday and hopefully play another week."
Ogdensburg won the Class C championship during the Section X regular season and enters the game with a 4-4 record. The Blue Devils are experienced at quarterback, as two-year senior starter Nate Angel has combined for more than 1,500 yards of offensive production. He leads the team in rushing with 681 yards and 10 touchdowns on 85 carries, and has also completed 59 of 109 pass attempts for 865 yards and eight touchdowns. He has been intercepted six times.
"He is a very talented athlete who throws the ball really well, and he likes to run," Bennett said. "He has as much game experience as any quarterback we've faced, and he will give us some problems."
Jordan McCormick finished the regular season as the second-leading rusher for Ogdensburg with 620 yards, and fullback Zach Sharpe was third on the team with 416 yards and seven touchdowns.
After successfully stepping up to every challenge so far this season, Bennett said Saturday's game should be Saranac Lake's toughest test yet.
"We know that Ogdensburg has a proud football tradition, they are well coached, their kids are always good athletes, and I'm sure they have a pretty good book on us," Bennett said. "They are big up front and play aggressively. We're expecting a real dog fight."
The winner of Saturday's game will face the Section II champion (either Hoosic Falls or Chatham) next week in the state Class C quarterfinal round. If Saranac Lake comes out on top, that regional game will be back at AuSable Valley on Saturday, Nov. 10.
"This is what it's all about," Bennett said. "Our guys against Ogdensburg is usually a big game."