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NEW YORK STATE FOOTBALL: TIOGA LOOKS TO 'PUNCH TICKET' TO CLASS D FINALS; FACES BIG CHALLENGE IN OAKFIELD-ALABAMA-ELBA (2021-11-25)

By TIM BIRNEY
Valley Sports Report
CICERO, N.Y. — Tioga will suit up Friday afternoon here at Cicero-North Syracuse High School for its ninth appearance in the Class D state semifinals since 2011, while Oakfield-Alabama-Elba will be making its first appearance this deep in the postseason.

The game is a match-up of the two top-ranked Class D football teams in New York State — Tioga (10-0) at No. 1, and OAE (12-0) at No. 2, coming off a 28-22 win over last week’s No. 2 Randolph.

Last weekend, the Tigers won their ninth state quarter-final game in as many tries — a 50-12 demolition of previously-unbeaten Dolgeville, but in this round they are just 1-7. (Six of those seven loss have come to eventual state champions.)

“When you get to this point, everyone is good,” said Tioga coach Nick Aiello. “We’ve had a tough time punching through, but at the same time we know the competition we’ve been up against.

“I think that’s also what’s driven us as a staff for many years,” noted Aiello. “And it’s driven this team since that semi-final loss when they were sophomores.”

The “semi-final loss” Aiello referred to was Tioga’s 28-27 heart-breaker against defending and eventual state champion Clymer / Sherman / Panama in 2019.

“It’s a huge motivation,” said Aiello. “These guys were sophomores … they got a taste of it. They got a taste of high-level competition as young guys. Now, they’re seniors … and with missing a chance last year, I feel all year long they’ve understood what their goal was, and what they had to do.

“A lot of times you have teams and kids who talk about their goals, but they aren’t really sure what they need to do to get there. These guys know what it takes. They know what they want, and they’re driven.

“I’ve said all year long this senior group has led the way. They’ve had their sights set all year on punching that ticket, they want a shot at it,” continued Aiello. “They understand the work they’ve had to put in to this point to give themselves a chance. They also understand the work and the effort it’s going to take to punch that ticket.”

“They are laser-focused right now,” he added.

OAE has some history in Section V, but not as a collective group.

Oakfield-Alabama won back-to-back Section V 8-man titles in 2018 and ’19, and won the Class D title in 2004 (and the Class DD title in 2006), while Elba won the Class D title in 1989.

Last year was the program’s first in its current structure. The Aggies finished the truncated spring season with a 5-2 record.

The Tigers have outscored their opponents by an average of 39.3 points, and has only been seriously tested for four quarters in one game — a 27-14 win over Watkins Glen / O-M.

Does the lack of having to win a close game worry Aiello?

“It can be concerning,” he said. “But, we know what we’re in for. When you play good teams, you can’t expect to dominate in all facets of the game for four quarters. You have to expect a dog fight … you have to expect and be able to handle adversity.

“With my guys, it’s going to come down to playing to win, whatever that is.

“Against Newark Valley we had a tough first half,” noted Aiello. “We talked about it, told them what they needed to do in the second half to win, and they came out and played a good second half.

“We practice game situations every day,” added Aiello. “We practice overtime, we practice going for two to win the game, we practice the two-minute drill … we practice that stuff all the time to get these kids in that mindset to do what you need to do to win the game.”

WHEN OAKFIELD-ALABAMA-ELBA HAS THE BALL

The Aggies have scored an average of 45.5 points per game this season, while the Tigers have allowed just 9.5 points per game.

QB Bodie Hyde has completed about 60 percent of his passes this season for more than 700 yards and nine TDs. He was 6-for-12 for 184 yards and three TDs in the win over Randolph. He also has more than 500 rushing yards and 11 TDs.

The big gun in the OAE ground game is Gaige Armbrewster, who has more than 1,500 yards on the ground and 17 TDs.

Noah Currier is another key weapon for the Aggies. He has more than 600 rushing yards and 12 TDs, and nearly 300 receiving yards and five TDs.

“They have a lot of speed, and they mix it up pretty well between under-center and shotgun,” said Aiello.

“They are a Wing-T team,” he noted. “They hang their hat on the buck sweep, and that sets up their whole offense — their play-action to their complimentary plays, to their counter, and to everything they do in the pass game.

“The Wing-T is a tough offense to defend, especially when a team has talented athletes, and (OAE) has those,” continued Aiello. “They have two really good guards they pull to lead the sweep, and the majority of their run plays.

“They have the speed and the athletes to get down field quick on you in the pass game, and they’re able to strike quick that way.

“They pose quite a few challenges,” added Aiello. “It’s really going to come down to the way we fly around and tackle, and not give up the big play.”

WHEN TIOGA HAS THE BALL

The Tigers average 48.8 points per game, while the Aggies allow 11.6.

Tioga averages 374.3 yards per game on the ground, led by senior tailback Emmett Wood, who has 1,769 yards and 28 TDs this season on just 119 carries (14.9 yards per carry). Wood now has 7,001 yards and 93 rushing TDs for his career.

Senior fullback Gavin Godfrey has 723 yards and seven TDs on 65 carries (11.1 yards per carry), and sophomore Ousmane Duncanson has chipped in with 196 yards and three TDs on 18 carries (10.8 yards per carry).

Sophomore dual-threat QB Caden Bellis has made sure the Tigers are not a one-trick pony.

Bellis has completed 53 percent of his passes (32 of 60) for 909 yards and 14 TDs without being intercepted. He has also run for 576 yards and nine TDs on 47 carries (12.3 yards per carry).

Senior Cobe Whitmore leads the Tigers with nine catches for 152 yards and three TDs, while sophomore Valentino Rossi (7-245-4), Evan Sickler (5-207-2), Duncanson (4-134-2) and Wood (4-44) all have at least four catches.

“(OAE’s) base is a 4-4,” said Aiello. “Up front, they are very strong, and they have a very good strong-side defensive end. They also have a tall weak-side defensive end who is very good with his hands.

“They have two really good linebackers, who are unblocked a lot, so you know the defensive front is doing a good job,” noted Aiello. “And, their secondary is all their athletes.

“They are solid — top to bottom,” continued Aiello. “”They get hats to the ball, and they take pride in playing good defense.”

Aiello said their defensive scheme makes you prepare for different looks.

“They mix in a lot of blitzes, and a lot of stuff off the edge with their defensive end and linebacker,” he said. “They’ll also drop into some different defensive fronts they’ve shown throughout the season.

“We’re getting the kids ready for everything, especially this week talking about the personnel on the other side and how important it is to be executing your job because if you leave those guys unblocked they are going to be making tackles,” added Aiello.

One thing Aiello makes sure to point out, the Aggies present the Tigers with a big challenge.

“Once you get to the postseason, the next step is always the biggest challenge. You’re talking about a high level of competition.

“Every team left in Class D is undefeated, which means they are all good,” he said.

“You have four teams trying to punch their ticket to the Dome. You’re going to see the best out of everybody.

“We’re going to have play confident, play fast, play physical, play our style of football, and understand we’re not asking them to do anything different, or anything special,” noted Aiello. “It comes down to the team that hits, comes off the ball, and blocks and tackles the best wins these big games.

“I think our guys are ready,” added Aiello. “They’ve been preparing for this moment.”

Game time is 3 p.m.

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IN PHOTO 1: Tioga coach Nick Aiello. … VSR STOCK PHOTO.

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