Four Section VI teams are playing for state championships this weekend.
And just when that thought begins to settle in, check out this one: They're all favorites.
It could be quite the weekend for Section VI, which has already made history by putting four teams in the finals for the first time (the previous best was three, which only happened once, and all three teams lost that that year -- 1999).
All four teams have to be considered favorites since all four enter their final ranked first in the state in their class and all are undefeated at 12-0. So picking a Section VI sweep in its four dome games (that still sounds really strange) isn't the going-out-on-a-limb pick that it otherwise might be.
Orchard Park has been ranked first in the state since midseason, Sweet Home got there after dethroning Aquinas in the regionals, Southwestern moved to the top after beating traditional power and top-ranked Le Roy in the regionals, and Maple Grove ascended to the top spot this week after its throttling of defending champion Walton.
There are good reasons that these teams are ranked as high as they are.
These are four exceptional teams -- with team in italics. These are not one-man shows. There are surely exceptional players on all four squads, but each one of them are part of deep, talented, cohesive casts. The four have won in different ways, on either side of the ball and on special teams. Their coaching staffs are as deep and as smart as the troops on the field.
The four have great playbooks, and have rewritten record books, but this quartet's seasons are certainly not what you would call storybooks. There are no little-teams-that-could which kept pulling off the unlikely or dramatic. There have been no close calls in the playoffs, particularly in last week's semifinals.
North Tonawanda might claim some what-ifs from its Section VI final against Orchard Park, but I believe that if OP was truly pushed, it would have pushed back. That's what it did on its first drives of the second half against Gates-Chili, as it did once Binghamton took a lead in the semifinal. Southwestern held on to beat Le Roy by three after a miracle comeback attempt faltered, and it had the upper hand all second half against Elmira Notre Dame last week. Other than those games, the Section VI quartet has truly been dominant in the postseason after hardly being challenged in the teams' undefeated regular seasons.
At the beginning of the season, Orchard Park was expected to go far in the state playoffs, Sweet Home was the favorite to defend its Section VI title, Southwestern was a favorite in Class C after moving down from Class B this year and Maple Grove was a leading candidate in Class D.
As the season went on, all four lived up to those expectations. That's why I picked all five to beat Section V teams in the regionals (even though history said it was quite preposterous to do so) and why I picked all four teams to win semifinals last week.
Then there's the recent history of the East-West matchups. Last year, all four of these classes were won by the Western half of the state, by margins of 21, 22, seven and 58 points. The Eastern half of the state hasn't won more than two of the five finals since it won three in 2000.
With all that said, you'll find the teams that are on the other side of the ball right behind, or almost right behind, the Section VI squads in those state polls. These are state championship games. These teams are obviously good. There have been crazier things to happen in the Carrier Dome late in November (like the college team that plays there having a winning record! baddump-bump).
Here's the breakdown -- listed in order of Section VI's best chance to advance, and with reasons why things could go either way (you can still vote in our polls until Maple Grove kicks off):
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Four-for-Dome: The numbers and the history is too much to overlook. Maple Grove destroyed Walton with a multi-faceted attack and a super-tough defense. Last year Walton destroyed everyone on the way to a state championship. Key Red Dragons Chris Secky and Joe Caporale have the confidence from winning last year's Class C basketball title. And last week, Adam Hover becomes the scoring star? Maple Grove has been playing at a different level all season long. It shouldn't change this morning.
Oh-for-Dome: After Maple Grove manhandled Walton, a team that won its state championship last year by beating Section VII champion Ticonderoga, 64-6, all I can come up with for this one is a phrase that can be applied to all of these finals: that's why they play the games.
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Four-for-Dome: Sweet Home has to be the fastest team in Western New York. The Panthers were fast last week, on a frigid field that was turned white with snow. Now a team that has played the too-many-weapons role the last several weeks has its many weapons inside and on turf.
Oh-for-Dome: Somehow run-and-throw-and-kick threat Paul Layton pulls off an upset, prompting The Millstone to name a burger after him.
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Oh-for-Dome: Monroe-Woodbury has played in the dome before. The Crusaders have won in the Dome before. They've got Division I prospects at positions like kicker and wideout and a stacked lineup, just like Orchard Park does. This game could be the most dramatic of the weekend. Maybe first-time finalist OP gets caught looking at the dome ceiling and realizes it peaked a week earlier (like last year when it fell in the semifinals).
Four-for-Dome: We're saying that's not going to happen. OP is now ranked sixth in USA Today's East Region.
(OP is also ninth in the Northeast in the National Prep Poll; Iona Prep moved from 17th to 11th in ESPNRise's East Region after it beat St. Anthony's for the second time this year; Rivals/Yahoo still lamely has Aquinas 17th in the Atlantic East).
The Quakers did wait an entire year to make amends in the state semifinals, and they came up with its best game of the year to do so. Considering the weight of those kind of expectations, I was somewhat surprised to hear so much we've-still-got-one-more-game focus by OP players after last Saturday's win over an extremely tough Binghamton team. Honestly, when the season's over, I have a feeling that history will remember Binghamton as being OP's toughest opponent.
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Four-for-Dome: The dome is going to be filled with some serious Southern Tier spirit after Maple Grove's game. The cut on quarterback Zack Sopak's right thumb (which prevented him from taking balls under center) is healing and won't be exposed to the cold, not that his game has been affected that much. There's a perceived weakness in the Trojans' game, but we think coach Jay Sirianni will have them prepared. The Trojan defense has come up big when it has had to, and they'll do it again.
Oh-for-Dome: Southwestern is last on the Section VI list for one main reason: The weakness is what Sirianni himself described as the team's Achilles' heel -- its pass defense. The Trojans withstood huge statistical games to the QBs and WRs of Le Roy and Elmira Notre Dame, but Croton-Harmon's passing game could prove to be much better.
We'll know by the end of the today if OP will be trying to hit a Section VI grand slam Sunday.
Join us in a few hours as we kick off a weekend full of live blogging and updates.
taggedHigh school football