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THE FINAL WORD: TIOGA'S STATE TITLE RUN WAS SIMPLY DOMINANT (2021-12-24)

It's not easy to win a state title, but Tioga kind of made it look that way.

If there's one word to describe Tioga's 2021 state title run, it was: dominance.

The Tigers dominated on both sides of the ball for the entire season, outscoring their opponents 564-101, or by an average of 47 to 8.4 points per game, on its way to a perfect 12-0 mark.

It really didn't matter if it was the regular season, or the postseason. Tioga won by average of 40.5 points per game in seven regular season games, and by an average of 36 points per game in five postseason games.

Even the level of competition in the postseason made little difference. Tioga dispatched with its two Section IV foes in the postseason by an average of 36 points, and also won its three state playoff games by an average of 36 points.

The Tigers, at 1-0, were ranked No. 2 in the initial New York State Class D rankings, while Harpursville-Afton was 12th. Tioga's eventual state semi-final opponent - Oakfield-Alabama-Elba - received honorable mention recognition, and its state final opponent Moriah was ranked 13th.

After the Tigers opened the season with a 56-3 win at Sidney, Tioga had what would be its closest game of the season, in terms of the final score, in Week 2 - a 27-14 win over Watkins Glen / O-M. It could have easily been a 20-point win, but the Tigers took a knee at the WGOM 1-yard-line on the final two plays of the game.

After another lopsided win over Walton, Tioga moved into the top spot in the Class D rankings, with Harpursville-Afton at 11 and Delhi at 14, while Moriah bumped up to 12th, and OAE remained an honorable mention despite a 4-0 record.

Most pundits ranked Tioga as the team to beat in Section IV prior to the season, but several in the East voiced the opinion Delhi was a team to watch.

The two teams met in a highly-anticipated contest at the scenic Delhi field on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

It was the first game in what, prior to the season, coach Nick Aiello pointed to as a pivotal three-game stretch, with Harpursville-Afton and Newark Valley to follow.

It was never a game. Tioga scored on its first eight possession in a 55-0 romp.

Tioga remained No. 1 in the Class D rankings, while Harpursville-Afton and Moriah remained 11th and 12th, respectively, and Newark Valley moved into the poll at No. 15.

Week 5 brought a little fear into the most ardent of Tioga fan's heart when Newark Valley, with a 3-1 record - its loss a 42-37 season-opening decision against Harpursville-Afton - came calling to Haggerty Field.

Tioga's defense needed a couple of big first-half stops, including a goal-line stand, to take a 13-0 lead into the halftime break. The Tigers dominated in the second half, and pulled away for a 46-15 win.

Week 6 saw Tioga hosting Harpursville-Afton at Haggerty Field in another battle of unbeaten state-ranked teams - Tioga at No. 1 and H-A at 11th. Moriah remained at 12th, but OAE jumped to 4th following a win over No. 2 Avon.

Again, it was never a game. Sophomore QB Caden Bellis tossed five first-half TD passes to lead the Tigers to a 41-0 lead at the intermission. They won 48-0.

So, in the three games the Tigers had circled on their calendar prior to the season, they won by a combined 149-15.

Tioga closed out the regular season with a 61-8 win over Bainbridge-Guilford.

The Tigers were ranked No. 1 in the final poll of the regular season, and was the only team in Section IV in the rankings, which goes 15-deep. Delhi, H-A, and Newark Valley were all honorable mention. OAE was third, Dolgeville fifth, and Moriah 11th.

The Tigers ran over Delhi again - this time 56-12 - in the Section IV, Class D semifinals.

In the other semi-final, Newark Valley avenged its season-opening loss to H-A to set up the first postseason meeting between the two arch-rivals since 1980.

Once again, Newark Valley, ranked 13th, gave Tioga all it wanted for a half, and the two teams went to the locker room tied at 14-14. It was the only time all season the Tigers did not lead at the half.

The Tigers scored on their first three possession of the second half, and cruised to a 48-20 win. On the same night, OAE beat Avon for the Section V crown.

Heading into the state playoffs, Tioga remained No. 1, while Randolph was second, OAE third, Dolgeville fifth, and Moriah ninth.

In the state quarterfinals, Tioga rolled over Section III champ Dolgeville, 50-12, and into a semi-final match-up against OAE, which upset unbeaten Section VI champ Randolph.

The state semifinals, aside from 2015, have been a place Tioga's state title dreams have gone to die. Aiello's teams had a 1-7 record in the round heading into the OAE match-up, with six of those losses coming to eventual state champs.

The Tigers didn't get that memo, pounding out 412 yards on the ground in a 49-6 rout to advance to the state finals against Moriah, now ranked No. 2.

At the Carrier Dome, for the first time all season, the Tigers appeared to meet their match. A 75-yard TD run by Bellis late in the first quarter gave Tioga a 7-0 halftime lead, otherwise, its offense was stymied.

After the Tioga defense stopped Mariah near the red zone late in the third quarter, sophomore Gavin Fisher was called on to punt from the shadows of his own goal-line. He mishandled the snap, and disaster appeared imminent, but he scooped up the ball, and in traffic, unleashed a tightly-spiraling 50-yard rugby-style punt that may have saved the Tigers' championship season.

Two plays later, senior linebacker Justin Hopkins penetrated into the Moriah backfield and forced a fumble that he also recovered. Moments later, Emmett Wood busted loose on a long scoring run, and Tioga would tack on two more scores for a 27-0 win to secure its first state title since 2015.

The Tigers won its state title on the strength of a punishing, but explosive ground game, and a passing game capable of a big play any time the ball went into the air, as well as a fast and physical defense that shut down opposing offenses all season long.

Wood capped a brilliant career with another 2,000-yard season (2,144 yards and 34 TDs), finishing his career fifth all-time in N.Y. with 7,367 yards.

Had he not missed at least four games due to the Covid -shortened spring season in 2021, and one game this season, Wood may have challenged 2016 Tioga grad Jesse Manuel for No. 2 all-time.

Wood was not alone. Senior Gavin Godfrey rushed for 901 yards and nine TDs, and Bellis added 705 yards and 10 TDs.

In all, TIoga averaged 369.7 yards per game, and 10.7 yards per carry. Four different ball carriers (Bellis at 12.2, Wood at 12.1, Godfrey at 11.4, and sophomore Ousmane Duncanson at 10.9) averaged at least 10 yards per carry.

Bellis also threw for what is believed to be a school record 1,007 yards and 15 TDs, while being picked off just once.

The Tigers averaged 454.3 yards per game in total offense, and an amazing 11.51 yards per play.

Tioga's offensive success came behind an offensive line - seniors Josh Snell (205), Chris Walsh (180) and Matt Watson (190), sophomore Karson Sindoni (180) and freshman Tate Macauley (256) "‚ÄĚthat was often out-sized, but rarely out-executed. The line averaged 202 pounds, and had just one starter that exceeded 205.

Defensively, senior linebacker Isaac Peterson, who hit like a truck, was the heart-and-soul of a unit that posted three shutouts, and allowed eight or less points seven times in 12 games.

Godfrey, another heavy hitter, was a physical presence in the secondary, who came up and hit on run support like a linebacker.

Speaking of linebackers, the Tigers had a trio in Peterson, Wood, and Duncanson who were as good as any threesome in Section IV. And, Hopkins was an unsung hero who flew under the radar all season for the Tigers, and made big play after big play.

Just as important to Tioga's defense as its physicality was its speed.

How fast was the Tiger defense? Two-fourths of Tioga's school-record 4-by-100-meter relay team - Watson and Walsh - played defensive end. Running east-and-west on Tioga was nearly impossible.

A third member of relay team - sophomore Valentino Rossi - was a key starter in the secondary.

Another key component to the team's success was its senior leadership: Wood, Godfrey, Peterson, Walsh, Watson, Snell, Hopkins, Cobe Whitmore, Dylan Shipman, and Logan Roberts.

The majority of them were workout warriors in the offseason and two-way starters on the field. More importantly, they helped an ultra-talented sophomore class quickly acclimate to the varsity level.

The sophomore class had several key two-way starters, led by Bellis, Duncanson, Rossi, Sindoni, Drew Macumber, and Evan Sickler, who quickly became a key player in the defensive secondary.

Another sophomore, Fisher, he of the season-saving punt in the state championship game, solidified the kicking game, and was nearly automatic on extra points.

Another piece of the puzzle was a few freshmen linemen, led by Macauley, who gained valuable experience, and will likely step in next season and see a lot of snaps on the offensive line.

The final piece of the puzzle was Aiello and his coaching staff, who had his opponents well-scouted, and his team prepared week-in and week-out for nearly every possible offensive formation or defensive scheme it could face.

All in all, it was a perfect storm. A strong senior class, and a big and talented sophomore class, full of fast, physical, and smart football players, led by a well-prepared and experienced coaching staff.

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