CLINTONVILLE - Eleven games into the season, Saranac Lake's football team finally met its match.
In a battle of unbeatens Saturday, Hoosick Falls topped Saranac Lake 20-12 in a state quarterfinal matchup at AuSable Valley. With the win, the Panthers improved to 11-0 and advanced to the state Class C semifinals for the second year in a row. Meanwhile, the Red Storm saw their season end with a 10-1 record.
In a game between two high-scoring teams, Saranac Lake held leads twice. The Red Storm took a 6-0 edge into halftime and then jumped ahead 12-6 early in the fourth quarter. But in the end, the Red Storm were unable to hold down the Panthers, who got two the final two touchdowns of the game on runs by their star back Brad Burns to win the game.
Saranac Lake quarterback Matt Phelan carries the ball into a midfield pileup as Hoosick Falls defenders Randy Tutunjanin (7) and Brad Burns (35) close in to make a tackle during Saturday’s state quarterfinal game at AuSable Valley. The Panthers won 20-12 to end the Red Storm’s run toward a state championship.
(Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)
In what turned out to be a defensive struggle early, Saranac Lake did a great job containing Burns early. In the first half, the Red Storm defense held the senior and Section II's leading rusher to just 30 yards on 10 carries. Burns, however, eventually found room to run after intermission, scoring all three Hoosick Falls touchdowns and finishing with 143 yards on 29 attempts.
As it turned out, Saranac Lake's biggest problem wasn't on defense. The Red Storm's greatest struggles were associated with their running attack. After gaining ground at will during 10 lopsided victories heading into Saturday's game, Saranac Lake only rushed for 100 yards against a quick Hoosick Falls defense. And most of the yards the Red Storm did manage to pick up came from senior quarterback Matt Phelan, who carried the ball 22 times for 88 yards while scoring both of his team's touchdowns.
"We just couldn't run the football," Saranac Lake coach Eric Bennett said. "Our defense played lights out, but we had a tough time moving against a stout Hoosick Falls defense."
Turnovers also proved costly to Saranac Lake, as a fumble and an interception in the closing minutes of the game hampered any hopes of a Red Storm comeback after the Panthers rallied to take the lead.
Both teams coughed the ball up on their first possessions after driving deep into the opposition's territory. The Panthers opened the game with the ball and on the first play from scrimmage, Burns gained 43 yards on pass-and-run reception from senior quarterback Billy Pine, who followed with a 17-yard run to put the ball on the Red Storm's 8-yard line. But on the next play, Burns fumbled and linebacker Craig Leahy made the recovery.
Saranac Lake then went on the advance and reached the Panthers 26 when senior Mike Burpoe hauled in a 41-yard pass from Phelan. But Phelan fumbled on the next play while scrambling, and Austin Pitt scooped it up for Hoosick Falls to end the threat.
A big defensive play by senior Seth Pickreign set the stage for the first points of the game when he intercepted a Pine pass to give Saranac Lake the ball at its own 43 with 2:38 remaining in the opening quarter. With the ball in their hands, the Red Storm marched the distance in nine plays with Phelan reaching the end zone on a 2-yard carry 1:30 into the second period. Pickreign's conversion kick went wide, leaving Saranac Lake on top 6-0. The big play in the drive was a 37-yard reception by senior Kevin Morgan.
Hoosick Falls tied the game on the only score of the third quarter, which came on a 3-yard run by Burns that capped off a 55-yard, eight-play drive. But the Panthers also missed their conversion kick attempt by Eric Kaufmann, keeping the score tied at 6-6 with 1:09 left in the period.
The Red Storm answered on their next possession, driving 75 yards with Phelan scoring on an 18-yard run to put his team back into the lead with 2:09 gone in the fourth quarter. A Phelan pass attempt on the conversion attempt was tipped incomplete, leaving the Red Storm on top 12-6.
Following the lead of their opponent, the Panthers responded with a touchdown march. Starting at their 45, the went the distance with Burns reaching the end zone on a 15-yard run to tie the score with 7:57 left in the game. This time, Kaufmann send the conversion kick through the uprights for a 13-12 Hoosick Falls edge.
Saranac Lake then fumbled away the ensuing kickoff as Morgan lost the ball with the Panthers recovering at the Red Storm's 30. With the momentum now on their side, the Panthers ran the ball seven straight times, with Burns scoring on a 5-yard run. Hoosick Falls tacked on another point on the conversion kick to take a 20-12 lead with 4:35 remaining on the clock.
Facing a fourth-down-and-13 on their next possession, the Red Storm's hopes to rally ended on a desperation play when Pickreign was interception by Burns on a halfback pass with 2:25 left in the game.
Hoosick Falls then went on to eat up the clock to advance to the state semifinal round for the second straight year. Last season, their shot at a title ended in Kingston in a 13-12 loss to eventual champion Dobbs Ferry.
"They were the toughest thing we've faced all season," Hoosick Falls head coach Don Jones said describing the Red Storm. "I certainly hope they are the second-best team in the state.
"In the first half, we were frustrated," Jones added. "Saranac Lake has a great defense. They hustled and ran to the football. At halftime, we refocused. We got a big push from our offensive line in the second half, and our defense played great."
With the going rough on the ground, Phelan attempted a season-high 34 passes. He completed 20 throws for 184 yards, with Burpoe leading Saranac Lake's receivers with 11 receptions for 111 yards. Morgan followed with seven catches good for 95 yards.
Saturday's game marked the third year in a row that Saranac Lake and Hoosick Falls clashed in the Class C regional playoffs. For Saranac Lake, a 10-1 record and three championships along the way left its players feeling accomplished, but still empty in the end.
"We just made too many mistakes. We should have had that team," said Red Storm senior lineman Taylor Pellerin. "Their team was all about their quarterback and running back, and we just missed too many tackles."
"It was nice to have someone finally punch us back, and I'm sure the Hoosick Falls players feel the same way," added Saranac Lake lineman Grant Strack, another senior. "This game was high intensity. We left it all on the field. Hopefully, we showed our younger guys the way and they can get it done next season."
On their march into the regional playoffs, the Red Storm went undefeated to capture the Champlain Valley Athletic Conference regular season championship, and went on to claim the Section VII and Section VII/X titles before falling Saturday. Bennett said it will be a long before Saranac Lake sees the likes of a senior class that led the team to another strong campaign for a football program rich in tradition.
"These seniors are the best group I've ever worked with," Bennett said. "It was an honor to coach them. They did everything we asked and then some. The were outstanding on the field, but more importantly, they are outstanding students and members of the community. Every one of these seniors have made me and our coaching staff better people."
Hoosick Falls will face Section IX champion O'Neill on Saturday in Kingston in the state semifinals.
Hoosick Falls 20, Saranac Lake 12
SL - Phelan 2 run (Kick failed), 1:30
HF - Burns 3 run (Kick failed), 10:51
SL - Phelan 18 run (Pass failed), 2:00
HF - Burns 15 run (Kaufmann kick), 4:03
HF - Burns 5 run (Kaufmann kick), 7:25
Hoosick Falls - Burns 29-143 3TDs, Pine 12-99. Totals: 41-242 3TDs.
Saranac Lake - Phelan 22-88 2TDs, Ackerson 7-6, Pickreign 5-6. Totals: 34-100 2TDs.
Hoosick Falls - Pine 7-14-1-87.
Saranac Lake - Phelan 20-34-0-200.
Hoosick Falls - Burns 1-43, Tutunjanin 4-29, Brogue 1-9, Matte-Yorke 1-14.
Saranac Lake - Morgan 7-95, Burpoe 11-102, Ackerson 1-1, Leahy 1-2.
Hoosick Falls - Burns.
Saranac Lake - Pickreign.