By Nick Sardina
VERONA – Facing its first stiff challenge of the season, Cazenovia’s football team responded the way first-year head coach Jay Steinhorst had hoped.
Entering Saturday’s game Cazenovia had outscored its opponents 185-20, and their first-team defense had not surrendered a single point. Things didn’t go as scripted early on Saturday as Vernon-Verona-Sherrill went toe to toe with Cazenovia and only trailed the Lakers by two points — 14-12 — at halftime.
The Lakers proved resilient, and led by a stifling defense, dominated the second half to pull away from the feisty Red Devils for a 42-12 victory Saturday afternoon at Shevron Field. The victory clinched the Class B East title for the Lakers (5-0, 6-0), who are ranked No. 2 in the state.
TJ Connellan rushed for 115 yards and three touchdowns, and quarterback Jake Shaffner had 140 total yards with a rushing and passing touchdown for the Lakers, who have won the Section III Class B title in 2010, 2012 and 2013.
“It was a solid test,” Steinhorst said. “If I was VVS, I’d be really proud of the way we played in the first half … and for the entire game for that matter. They took us to the edge. Our guys responded in the second half. I thought they would, but you don’t know until it happens.”
Connellan put the Lakers up early, taking an option pitch down the right sideline and outracing the Red Devils defense for a 67-yard scoring run. The Red Devils came back and pulled to within 7-6 on Ryan Palmer’s 1-yard touchdown plunge with 9:38 remaining in the half.
The Lakers answered with an 11-play, 55-yard scoring drive culminating with Connellan’s 8-yard run up the gut to extend the lead to 14-6. But once again VVS showed their grit and shocked Cazenovia on a 3rd and 21 as quarterback Alex Oliver found Nate Palmer on a 68-yard catch and run down the right sideline for a touchdown with 2:26 remaining in the half. The Red Devils’ two-point attempt to tie the game fell incomplete and they entered the half down by two points.
Despite trailing, VVS had the momentum entering halftime and seemed to gain even more after Cazenovia fumbled the second-half kickoff to give the Red Devils the ball at the Lakers’ 39-yard line. However, Cazenovia’s defense responded in a huge way, forcing a quick punt, and two plays later Paul McLaughlin took a shovel pass 67 yards for a touchdown to give the Lakers an 8-point edge while also reversing the momentum of the game.
“We executed our plays and played very well versus a good team,” Ryan Palmer said. “If we could’ve scored on that drive we would have had the lead and put them in a position they’ve never been in before.”
While Cazenovia’s offense deservedly receives plenty of credit for their success this season, it was the defense that fueled the victory Saturday, holding VVS to under 200 yards of offense and impressively allowing just six total yards of offense in second half.
“It was a little frustrating,” Connellan said of the fumble to begin the second half. “But our defense has been shutting down teams all season, and that’s what happened.”
Connellan’s third touchdown run of the game gave Lakers a 26-12 edge with 45 seconds remaining in the third quarter. Cazenovia poured it on in the fourth as Shaffner and Cole Wilson sandwiched touchdown runs around defensive linemen Dustin Hammond’s sack for a safety for the final margin.
Despite not getting the result they desired, the Red Devils (4-1, 4-2) can take plenty of positives from this game.
“It’s the first game they’ve been in,” VVS head coach Gary Oliver said of Cazenovia. “We played great in first half and had them back on their heels. But, big plays hurt us. If we could’ve cut down on the big plays we would’ve been right there with them until the end. We were playing very physical and played with a lot of heart. Cazenovia is a big, strong team, and eventually they just wore us down.”
The Red Devils host Mexico next Saturday and can clinch second place and a home sectional game with a victory.
“We’re hoping to win that game and get second place,” said Ryan Palmer, a senior. “Then we can come out in first round of sectionals and make a statement.”
The Lakers close out their season at home next Saturday against Central Valley Academy. Saturday’s lesson was a good one for a team that hadn’t been challenged all season and has their sights set on adding another championship banner.
“It sends a message to our kids that if they don’t come to play they can have problems,” Steinhorst said. “I like where we are at, but we are not there yet. All in all, I’m very happy with the second half.”
Connellan agreed that this game was a key moment for the team.
“We knew VVS was a solid team,” said Connellan, a Division I lacrosse recruit who is committed to play at Penn State University. “I think we dipped after the first run I had. We really have to play hard as we can every play. … It’s good to have these types of games late in the season. It was great to come out in second half and shut them down.”
Cazenovia 42, Vernon-Verona-Sherrill 12
Cazenovia 7 7 12 16—42
VVS 0 12 0 0—16
CAZ-TJ Connellan 67 run (Cole Willard kick)
VVS-Ryan Palmer 1 run (pass failed)
CAZ-Connellan 8 run (Willard kick)
VVS-Nate Palmer 68 pass from Alex Oliver (pass failed)
CAZ-Paul McLaughlin 67 pass from Jake Shaffner (run failed)
CAZ-Connellan 2 run (pass failed)
CAZ-Shaffner 14 run (Willard kick)
CAZ-Safety, Dustin Hammond sacks quarterback in end zone.
CAZ-Cole Wilson 27 run (McLaughlin kick)