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FROM THE PRESS BOX: MILLER HAS USHERED IN THE 'GOLDEN AGE' OF FOOTBALL AT WAVERLY, WHILE AIELLO HAS LIFTED TIOGA TO NEW HEIGHTS (2023-11-30)

Two schools in rural Central New York separated by a mere 13 miles, and both will be playing for state titles at the JMA Wireless Dome in Syracuse on Saturday. It’s hard to believe, but it’s exciting.

I had a chance to talk in-depth with Waverly head coach Jason Miller and Tioga coach Nick Aiello on Wednesday. Over the next few days, I’ll post stories on what makes these teams tick, and it’s no surprise that they have a great deal in common — great coaching staffs, great play in the trenches, tremendous senior leadership, and great quarterbacks leading a slew of talented skill-position players.

I’ve known Jason Miller a long time, and like myself, he played on some bad football teams at Waverly.

Miller has been head coach at his alma mater for 21 years, and has ushered the Wolverines into its “Golden Age” of football. His first season, Waverly had just 18 or 19 kids in uniform. This season, the preseason camp in August began with 60 players — grades nine through 12 — on the roster.

He’s built a coaching staff that includes a handful of former players, including his son Peyton, that is a well-oiled machine.

Miller has led Waverly to five Section IV titles, two state semi-final appearances, and now it’s first-ever trip to the Class C championship game.

Of course, one of the main reasons the Wolverines will be at the Dome Saturday is once-in-a-lifetime talent in QB Joey Tomasso, who has thrown for more than 8,700 yards and has 100 TD passes — both obviously school records.  On top of that, in the last three seasons, Tomasso has rushed for 1,914 yards, and 37 TDs.

Tomasso has also been fortunate to be paired with fellow senior Jay Pipher, who has 169 career receptions for 3,025 yards, and 30 TDs — again all school records.

This year, the addition of junior Xavier Watson and Kolsen Keathley, to go along with senior Jake VanHouten give Waverly the most dangerous collection of receivers in Section IV, and possibly the State.

The Wolverines also have a pair of solid running backs in junior Payton Fravel, and senior Carter George. Both will make you pay if you concentrate too much on stopping the pass.

Despite all those weapons, Waverly’s offense is driven by what is likely the best line in Section IV. Jake Benjamin is the lone senior, and is joined by juniors Kam Hills and J.T. Williams, sophomore Troy Beeman, and freshmen Carson Rockwell, and Matthias Welles, at tight end / H-back.

And, perhaps the most over-shadowed unit on the Wolverines is the defense, which has allowed just 29 points in four postseason games — 21 coming against Chenango Forks in the Section IV title game.

The front four of Hills, Benjamin, Beeman and Welles has been very difficult to run against, and it seems like inside linebackers, freshman Ben Shaw, and junior Nate Peters, are in on every tackle.

If you test the perimeter against the Wolverines, outside backers Carter George and Keathley will make you pay.

Of course, there is one more player that is often overlooked, and that’s the kicker. Sophomore Hogan Shaw has converted 66 of 68 extra-point attempts, and also has four field goals, including a pair of 39-yarders.

Perhaps even more important is his ability to drive the ball deep on kickoffs, including many touchbacks. Shaw’s kicks have forced opponents to drive 80 yards or more quite often throughout the season, and the significance of that cannot be understated.

And for Tioga, it’s much of the same.

Tioga coach Nick Aiello took over a program built by legendary coach Jim Haggerty, and has lifted it to heights even the staunchest of Haggerty supporters have to be impressed by.

Aiello has won 11 of the last 12 Section IV, Class D titles, is 11-0 in the state quarterfinals, and is one win away from his fourth state title, including what would be a three-peat. The Tigers are currently on a 40-game win streak, which is the third longest in Section IV history.

Aiello has taken all that was good with Tioga football, and made it even better. Like Waverly, there is no doubt this is the "Golden Age" of Tioga football as well.

Senior QB Caden Bellis will graduate as the all-time leader in nearly every passing statistic for the Tigers. He currently stands at 3,775 yards and 64 TDs, with just seven interceptions, and has completed 64.3 percent (163 of 257). He has also run for 2,131 yards, and 31 TDs.

Bellis is also blessed to have a plethora of weapons, including senior tailback Drew Macumber, who has 2,433 rushing yards and 51 TDs in the last two seasons, and senior fullback Ousmane Duncanson, who has 25 rushing TDs and has averaged more than 11 yards per carry the last two seasons.

Bellis’ receivers — seniors Evan Sickler, Valentino Rossi, and Karson Sindoni  have combined for 37 catches this season at an average of more than 29.5 yards.

In all, the Tioga offense averages 11.5 yards per play this season. Last year, the Tigers finished at an average of 9.65 yards per play.

One  of the most impressive things about Tioga is how the skill players block for each other. I've never seen another team block downfield like Tioga does, especially wideouts Sickler and Rossi sticking with blocks 25 or 30 yards down field.

And, don't get me started on Duncanson as a lead blocker for Macumber — simply devastating.

Perhaps my favorite Tioga stat to this point is the fact that the first-team offense has only been forced to punt once in 13 games this season. Waverly fans will take pride in the fact that it was the Wolverines that forced the punt on a three-and-out no less.

Again, all of Tioga’s success on offense comes behind an offensive line that sits a close second to Waverly’s in Section IV. Junior Tate MaCauley is a three-year starter, with seniors Levi Bellis and Cam Rought, and junior Garrett Godfrey all finishing up their second year as starters. Freshman center Derek Mills and junior reserve Jackson Clark have fit in seamlessly in their first year.

And as good as the Tioga offense has been, the Tigers defense has been just as dominant.

Tioga has allowed just 129 points this season, but the first-team defense yielded just 53 points — seven TDs, and a field goal. In the last nine games, Tioga’s first-team defense has allowed just four TDs.

Duncanson, Macumber, and Bellis, who also plays a lot at strong safety, are the heart-and-soul of the defense at linebacker, but again it all starts up front for the Tigers, who rely on their line to keep blockers off the linebackers.

And, the worst thing that can happen is to get into a position where you have to throw the ball against the Tigers secondary, where ball-hawk Sickler lurks. That’s if opposing QBs can get the ball off with Duncanson, Rossi, Sindoni, and Levi Bellis consistently pressuring pocket-passers throughout the season.

Last but not least, senior place-kicker Gavin Fisher has made a state-record 90 PAT kicks this season, to go along with one field goal. For his career, he has 218 extra points.

Like Shaw, Fisher has a big leg, and has consistently used it to pin opponents deep on kickoffs, and with 96 extra-point attempts, he’s had a lot of opportunities to show off his leg on kickoffs.

It’s a great time to be a high school football fan in Tioga and Waverly. Over the last three years, Tioga is 39-0 with two state titles and on the verge of making it a three-peat, while Waverly is 32-4 with a pair of Section IV titles, and is on the cusp of its first-ever state title.

Regardless of what happens Saturday, both programs have a great deal to be proud of … but a pair of state titles would be pretty sweet.

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