By David Yarger
On a cold, damp Friday night at George Vetter stadium in North Tonawanda, the Lumberjacks survived a fight from the Iroquois Chiefs, defeating them 20-16.
It was the last game to be played at George Vetter Stadium, as North Tonawanda will be getting a new stadium next season. It will go down as one of the more memorable games, as well, as it was the Lumberjacks' first playoff win since 2011.
Chris Labonte started the action for NT, running it in for a touchdown from 18 yards early to give the Lumberjacks a 7-0 lead.
With the rainy conditions, Iroquois' offense featured a lot of running back Brandon Yax. He produced Iroquois' first touchdown, taking it 48 yards for a Chiefs' score.
North Tonawanda's next offensive drive stalled after a big sack from Iroquois, and the Lumberjacks were forced to punt.
After a good punt return, Iroquois looked destined to take the lead after getting three first downs running the ball with Yax and quarterback Jack Edwards. The NT defense forced a fourth down play and, on the passing attempt by Iroquois, the ball fell incomplete, giving possession back to the Lumberjacks.
The Jacks' next drive went all of one yard before they were forced to punt.
The snap was a little wild, delaying the punter from getting the ball off quick. The punt was blocked and downed.
Once again, an Iroquois drive came down to a fourth-down play. And, just like last time, the conversion failed, this time thanks to a huge stop by Zach Winters.
NT took over with a little over two minutes left in the half. After two plays gaining no yards, the Jacks tried some trickery, attempting a running back pass play. It did not work, and the ball fell right into the arms of an Iroquois defender, giving the Chiefs great field position right before the half.
The Iroquois drive lasted only one play as, on the very next pass thrown, Winters intercepted the ball, giving possession right back to the Lumberjack offense.
On this drive, quarterback Zack Woodard took matters into his own hands. After both teams' passing attempts, combined, resulted in a dismal 0-3 with two interceptions (partly due to poor weather conditions), Woodard went 3-3 for 45 yards. An 11-yard touchdown pass to Patrick Milbrand capped off the drive.
The Lumberjacks led 14-7 heading into halftime.
North Tonawanda received the ball to start the second half. The first drive lasted 14 plays and resulted in a field goal, but could've resulted in more.
On the sixth play of the drive, Woodard threw a pass to a wide-open receiver about 30 yards down the field. But, again due to the conditions, the pass slipped right through his hands.
After a field goal, NT had a 10-point lead, 17-7.
Iroquois came back on offense and continued to do what it did all night, and that was run the ball. After three Yax runs, fullback Sam Ross made something out of nothing, and took it down to the NT 15 yard line. After back-to-back five-yard runs by Yax and Edwards, Yax took his next carry into the end zone for a five-yard touchdown. Iroquois cut the deficit to 17-14.
On the next offensive drive for NT, Labonte answered the Iroquois scoring by running the ball more than 60 yards, down to the Iroquois 17 yard line.
The Jacks couldn't move the ball any further from there, and settled for a 38-yard field goal to make it 20-14 shortly into the fourth quarter.
With time winding down for Iroquois, and the team down 6 points, the Chiefs' playoff life depended on a comeback.
What followed was a drive that saw Iroquois go for it on fourth down three times.
Yax and Edwards runs spurred the drive. On a third and 14 play, the NT defense seemed destined to get a stop, but Iroquois' Mike Nolan had different plans. He carried the ball 14 yards, falling short of a first down by just inches. On the next play, fourth and short, Edwards kept it and ran it up the middle for three yards. Yax fumbled on the ensuing play, but recovered his own drop.
After a few more runs, Iroquois faced a fourth and three. Edwards faked a handoff and looked to take it himself, but was greeted by a Jacks defender in his face who took him down short of the first down.
NT took over and ran a few more plays. On fourth and eight with nine seconds left, Woodard took the snap and ran backward into his own end zone to run out the clock. He fell to the ground, giving Iroquois a safety, but ending the game. NT held on to win by a final score of 20-16.
After the game, NT head coach Henry Fumerelle said the wet conditions definitely factored into the game plan.
"The climate and conditions affected, us but we actually did a little more throwing and that caught them by surprise," he said.
Fumerelle said he was happy with the outcome - NT's first playoff win since 2011, and the team's first under his leadership. He said he had a goal to turn the team back into a powerful football team like in past years.
"When I came here, I wanted to bring back that power and tradition," Fumerelle said. "With the help of guys like Zack and his senior class, they've jumped on our offseason program and believed in us and stayed together through some adversity this year. A lot of people were doubting us, but here we are in the semifinals."
A big play for NT was the final fourth down stop. Fumerelle had high praise for his defense with what was at stake.
"The last stop was huge," he said. "When we had that little break I told them, 'This could be the season right here,' and our guys came up big, and it was just a terrific feeling."
The win sends NT to the division A semifinals to face Bennett High School, which came back to defeat Grand Island. The date is to be determined, but the game will be played at All-High Stadium in Buffalo.
Watch highlights below: