A Seat in the Bleachers: Spartans excel without stars
SYRACUSE Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake senior wide receiver Eric Dillon cupped the four fingers of his left hand into the shape of a zero.
His younger sister, Jessica, won her second state title in volleyball last Sunday, thus claiming bragging rights around the house.
On Friday, Eric Dillon described the scene after that match: He walked toward her, grinning, with the two raised fingers of his right hand and the zilch of his left.
The Spartans football team already had three fingers dangling limply from their first attempts at a Class A state championship, losses at the Carrier Dome in 2008, 2009 and, most painfully, 2011.
Anything can happen in a state championship game, so Burnt Hills — against a school that had been responsible for two of those losses — certainly was in jeopardy of losing a fourth precious opportunity. Empty again.
Then the fourth finger went in a different direction.
Using a mystifying four-man rotation in the backfield, different players hitting Sweet Home from different angles designed to find the hollow spots created by the line, the Spartans poked and punched their way to a dominating 40-20 victory to finally win a state championship after three losses in four years, none more agonizing than last year’s.
What strikes you about this team is how they were able to do it without leaning on one or two stars to carry the team, perhaps a future Division I running back who could rampage through the whole defense, or a quarterback with an arm and vision beyond the capacity of high school defenses to stop.
No, without resorting to flamboyant trickery, the Spartans used a subtle brand of misdirection, all pieces working in harmony, to weave a gorgeous tapestry, especially in the first half, when you needed a microscope to detect any loose threads.
The second half started just shakily enough to conjure an image of last year’s loss to Maine-Endwell, when Burnt Hills wasted a 20-7 halftime lead.
But it cannot be overstated how nearly flawless the Spartans’ first-half performance was on Friday.
Senior quarterback Ryan McDonnell mixed in enough sharp passes to hurt the Panthers at important moments, and the running backs, especially MVP Dan Maynard and Dan Porter, patiently timed their cuts to take advantage of the work of the line.
Sweet Home never got past its own 29 until the final drive of the half, and Burnt Hills took a 26-0 lead that seemed like more.
Coaches can be curmudgeonly sorts not comfortable at all with words like “perfect” and “flawless” to describe their team, but when offered a chance to pick apart any unseen mistakes and lapses in the first half, Burnt Hills head coach Matt Shell actually was stumped.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, looking down and smiling. “In this environment, and with the stakes as high as these were . . . you don’t come into a game expecting that.”
Shell claims not to know how many yards each of his runners had this season, because “I don’t chart or tabulate one individual statistic.”
“And if you ask me, I would have no idea,” he said. “I don’t know if we had a thousand-yard rusher this year. But I do know, for a team, we had over 4,000 yards rushing. Everybody buys into it.”
The Spartans’ six touchdowns were scored by five different players.
Maynard finished with 128 of Burnt Hills’ 287 yards on the ground, but it really was spread all around, leaving Sweet Home to guess who was getting the ball from which direction and headed to which hole.
“It’s a huge advantage,” Dillon said. “They can’t see people cycling in and out, or seeing who’s going to get the ball in this formation or that.”
“This is truly a complete football team,” Shell said. “There is no one that is going to point a finger. They all know their roles, they all love their roles.”
Burnt Hills’ perfect game showed cracks to start the second half.
Sweet Home had a nice kickoff return to the Burnt Hills’ 42 and needed just four plays to storm into the end zone, then intercepted McDonnell.
“I don’t know about flashback; I was definitely a little scared,” McDonnell admitted. “I’ll say it, I was a little scared, you know, because we’ve been through it before, we’d seen it happen. I just didn’t want it to happen again. This is too good a group of guys, and every single one of them deserved this championship.”
The Spartans closed that crack quickly enough and regained a firm grip on the game, as Logan Ball fell on a Sweet Home fumble on the next play.
Sure, there were cracks. It’s football.
McDonnell missed the extra points on Burnt Hills’ first two touchdowns, “But, hey, it ended up not affecting the game,” he said.
Dillon was hit hard toward the end of the game and said he may have cracked a rib, but, hey, “I’ll be ready for lacrosse.”
The Spartans let one slip away last year, but a unified resolve, more than talent, luck or anything else, finally filled that hole.
“There’s always a chance,” Shell said. “That’s crazy, but those are the type of things people face outside of these walls that sometimes they maybe might not want to give it what they need to give it.
“But something like this, these guys understand. They know that, hey, I can make that next step. And sometimes that’s all you need to be able to do, is trust yourself to take the next step.”