Niagara Gazette — LANCASTER — They wore their home uniforms, navy blue from head to toe. Yet once again Niagara Falls High School was playing on the road, a last-minute decision made when Sal Maglie's rain-soaked field was deemed unfit for play.
And once again, it was a long bus ride back to Niagara Falls (0-3) with the players mulling over a loss, this one a 17-0 shutout by Class AA rival Lancaster (3-0) at Foyle-Kling Field on Saturday night.
It was a game that was supposed to be played in the afternoon but, with the change in venue, Niagara Falls head coach Donald Bass found himself having to keep his players focused for a few hours longer before the game finally got underway around 6:30 p.m.
"It's very hard to keep them focused but I've got to give the guys credit. They responded well," said Bass. "We had to do this last year and travel to Jamestown and that team just didn't show up. These boys showed up."
Lancaster's players were bigger in size, especially their offensive linemen. Their bench was deeper, too, with the Redskins outnumbering the Wolverines almost two to one. Yet for most of the first half, the Wolverines were right in the game.
Early in the first quarter it was due to Lancaster miscues, including an incomplete pass on a fourth down and later a missed field goal attempt. Later, though, it was the result of the Wolverine defense stepping up and making key plays.
Late in the first quarter, for example, after Niagara Falls quarterback Jaylin Smith's long pass was picked off at midfield, Niagara Falls shut down Lancaster's offense, including a big third down sack by Erik Santiago.
Lancaster finally broke the scoreless tie with just under six minutes left in the second quarter. After Smith threw his second interception, which was returned by Ryan Ritter to the Niagara Falls 3 yard line, Matt Szymanski took the ball on the following play and ran it in for a touchdown.
Niagara Falls couldn't keep their next drive alive and punted. Lancaster's Corey Helenbook took the Wolverines punt, escaped three Niagara Falls tacklers including two who were there to hit him upon catching the ball, and ran 75 yards back to score.
""It's always down to those last couple of series. We're hard, hard, hard and then we slip up and make a mistake," said Bass about his team's late first half miscues. "On that interception, our receiver slips down, they catch the ball, boom. On that punt return, we hit him twice, he stays high up and boom, he's in the end zone."
The only other Lancaster score came in the third quarter on a field goal by Alex Juhasz.
A brief rain fell on the field as the second half was starting. Both teams stayed mostly with a running game. Niagara Falls utilized a lot of quarterback keeper plays, allowing Smith to gain 76 yards on 11 carries. Shaolin McCray gained 52 yards, also on 11 carries. At least two more long runs were cancelled by holding or illegal blocking penalties.
The Wolverines offense struggled to move the ball beyond midfield for most of the game. They finally had the chance to start an offensive drive in Lancaster territory late in the fourth quarter, when the Redskins bungled a snap that they recovered at their own 5 yard line, then was forced to punt. The Wolverines had the ball at the Lancaster 31 yard line. Smith turned a broken play into a first down within the Lancaster 20 yard line. Then, with 45 seconds remaining in the final quarter, they fumbled the ball away.
In spite of the loss, Bass credited his players for their resilience. It's noteworthy that this is a Lancaster team that scored 64 points in their first two games.
"We're getting there," he said. "We're working hard. We're getting there."
The Wolverines host Lockport next Saturday at noon. Coach Bass was asked how it will feel to finally play a game in the Cataract City.
"Words can't describe," he replied. "We're looking forward to homecoming. It'll actually be a homecoming."