One of my most beloved day(s) each year is the Section VI high school football championships at Ralph Wilson Stadium. It’s what every team, coach and player strives for and each year is chockfull with considerable subplots.

This year was no exception.  South Park and Bennett vied for a second consecutive year while Burgard was new to the party to become the first Buffalo school to win a Class title since city schools joined Section VI in 2010.  Kenmore West was making its first appearance in 19 years while Orchard Park was looking to extend their record-high 13 titles.

Cheektowaga was taking a stab a defending their Class B title with Maple Grove/Chautauqua Lake attempting the same in Class C, although this time as gigantic underdogs.

Missing were Ralph regulars and 2014 Section VI champion Jamestown, Sweet Home and Randolph. In fact Jamestown and Randolph were defending state champions of Class AA and Class D respectively.

I hoarded a list of what I saw as the best… and yes, the worst of Section VI football at Ralph Wilson Stadium this year.

The Ralph MVP: Others may have accrued more impressive stats, but no one’s big day was more essential than Maple Grove/Chautauqua Lake running back Brad Benson. The junior carried the ball 23 times for 129 yards and scored three touchdowns as his Thunderdragon stunned Bennett in overtime, 29-28 to win the Class C crown. The Tigers were expected to win easily and probably would’ve, had it not been for the heroic efforts of Benson and others---but especially Benson.

Play of the Ralph: On fourth and goal in the waning moments, Bennett wide receiver Brandon Brown caught a pass in stride from Anthony Menders in the middle of the field and was poised to reach the end zone and give the Tigers a victory on their final offensive play.  However, Maple Grove/Chautauqua Lake’s Michael Padilla immediately wrapped Brown up and brought him down just short of the goal line. The tackle preserved a 22-22 tie and allowed the Thunderdragon to eventually win in overtime.

Connolly Cup Race Over: In the opinion of most, the Connolly Cup (given to WNY’s best high school player) was a five-horse race coming in into the Ralph: Tyree Brown (South Park), Isaiah McDuffie (Bennett), Terrell Ford (Kenmore West) and John Dolac III (West Seneca East) with Dillon Janca (Orchard Park) a dark horse.  By the time championships were decided, it’s my opinion that race is now over.  Tyree Brown emphatically deserves to win the 2015 Connolly Cup.  Brown completed 14-of-19 passes for 274 yards and three touchdowns in the air while also rushing for 76 yards and two scores in a blowout win over West Seneca East.  Meanwhile McDuffie (96 yards rushing, two touchdowns, nine tackles), Ford (103 yards from scrimmage, two touchdowns, two interceptions) and Dolac (93 rushing yards, one touchdown, 13 tackles) all had their moments but by their own probably unfair standards had pedestrian evenings. The knock on Brown all season is he’s basically a one-way player despite having four interceptions.  Regardless, there’s no longer any denying Brown merits the hardware as far as I’m concerned.

Most Impressive Performance: South Park lived up to the hype at Ralph Wilson Stadium; getting dominating performances from their most dominant players in a 54-30 drubbing of West Seneca East.  Brown did what most thought he would do, but the Sparks are much more than just a talented quarterback. Daryl Moore caught five passes for 118 yard and two touchdowns, while David Thomas had four for 96 while running for 55 yards and a touchdown on the ground. They also got significant contributions from Leeland Coleman and Austin Neal among others.  The Sparks are a really good football team and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them do well next weekend in Rochester.

Most Historic Performance: Let’s run with the Sparks one last time. By defeating West Seneca East they became the first Buffalo public school to ever win a Section VI football championship.  When city schools joined Section Vi in 2010 there were many detractors who considered city programs several years and perhaps at least a decade away from being on a championship competing level.  Those critics were wrong.  South Park nearly won last year and weren’t going to fail again in 2015. Coach Tim Delaney has done an incredible job with the Sparks.  Bennett and Burgard nearly won titles.  City schools are in good shape. This year will be the first of many city-earned championships.

Breakout Performance: It came in a losing effort, but Kenmore West junior Jamir Lynch put everyone on notice that he’ll be a major force next year.  Lynch caught 11 passes for 163 yards in the Blue Devil’s 34-20 Class AA loss to Orchard Park. The 11 receptions tied a Section VI playoff stadium record set by Orchard Park’s Ben Johnson in 2011, and Lynch was just 18 yards off the receiving yards record set by Zach Panebiacno of Jamestown two years ago.

Best Game: Bennett and Maple Grove went to overtime, but for me the best game of the Finals was the Class B title game pitting Cheektowaga against Burgard, a game the Warriors ultimately pulled out 25-22.  Cheektowaga was down 16-0 after one quarter and battled back with three straight touchdowns to take a lead, which didn’t last long thanks to a 98-yard Isaiah Jamison to Cordell Cain touchdown pass that gave Burgard another lead late in the third quarter. It wasn’t until Cheektowaga’s Stephan Parker was headed toward a touchdown before fumbling at the goal line and teammate Bryan Draves recovering the ball in the end zone did the Warriors score the winning points, with Burgard coming close several times to winning in the fourth quarter.

The Biggest Takeaway: Ladies and gentlemen, the Section Vi finals proved yet again there isn’t a more important statistic in football than turnovers. I don’t care how good you are—if you turn the ball over enough times you’re likely going to lose.  Kenmore West led Orchard Park by six at halftime, but imploded in the second half with an inconceivable seven turnovers.  The Quakers had three giveaways of their own but still won the turnover battle by four. It was the difference in the game.  Burgard had a 16-point lead against Cheektowaga but committed three turnovers in the second quarter, two of which resulted in Warrior touchdowns.  Cheektowaga went on to narrowly win.

Best Defense: Ellicottville/Franklinville’s stout defense had Frewsburg’s number all day.  The Titans picked off four passes and had a fumble recovery while only allowing Frewsburg to convert 31% of their third downs.

Most Unlikely Hero: Freshmen get no respect in high school. It’d be surprising if most the folk at Maple Grove/Chautauqua Lake know who Dustin McCaslin is. I guarantee that changes on campus Monday after his extra point was the difference in the win over Bennet. That might be the most significant one point play in school history.

Best Comeback Player: Kevin Koziol missed the last three weeks for Orchard Park with an upper body injury. He returned for the title game and was huge against Kenmore West.  Koziol caught five passes for 116 yards on offense, and had two interceptions, including a game-clinching touchdown return of 57 yards off the second for the Quakers.

Red Zone Success: Here’s one of the craziest stats you’ll see--- the 10 teams that played at the Ralph reached the red zone 29 times and combined they scored points at an 82.7% success rate. Five teams were perfect in the red zone, including South Park going 6-for-6.  The only team without a score in the red zone was Burgard, who went scoreless in two opportunities.

Best Halftime Adjustments: Orchard Park’s defense were slaughtered in the first half by an onslaught of Kenmore West jet sweep runs and quick hitch passes allowing the athletic Blue Devil receivers to run after the catch. The Quakers unmistakably adjusted in the locker room, as they completely took away Ken West’s running game and played considerable tighter coverage with their corners, causing Deangelo Walker-Johnson to start forcing throws into bad spots and inevitably leading to an abundance of turnovers.

Photo: Megan McDonald

Questionable Play Calling: Conversely,while my hat’s off to Kenmore West for a superb season that saw their first trip to the finals in 19 years, they downright allowed the game to get away from them in the second half.  Walker-Johnson valiantly battled through a previous badly sprained ankle that hampered his mobility and power to plant his foot and still played spectacularly in the first half, but it quickly became obvious in the third quarter Orchard Park was forcing/goading him into bad decisions. Rather than keep trying to run despite a lack of early success or run a Wildcat offense with Ford that worked so well against Lancaster last week, the Blue Devils continually dialed up passes nearly every down and it was ultimately their demise.  No high school quarterback should ever throw the ball 55 times in one game, particularly considering Kenmore West led at halftime and never down more than one score until the final three minutes of the game. To me It’s crazy to keep throwing every down, even if it’s generally your strength when your line is struggling to protect and your injured quarterback is trying to do too much, making the landslide of turnovers that ensued predictable. In my opinion, a more conservative approach could’ve won Ken-West the game, especially considering how well the defense played despite being put into impossible spots.

Bad Look For Bennett: I’m confident there wasn’t anyone in the Stadium that wouldn’t concede Bennett as far more talented than Maple Grove/Chautauqua Lake.  Perhaps it’s that that made the Tigers a bit overconfident. For whatever reason, the Tigers spent much of the game looking rattled and incredibly undisciplined.  Bennett committed 14 penalties for 137 yards, which drew the ire of head coach Steve McDuffie both during the game and after. In fairness to the Tigers the officials unquestionably blew a few calls, including two pass interference infractions. Having said that, the majority of Bennett’s mistakes were self-inflicted, comprising of several pre-snap false starts and two delay of games—of which one McDuffie immediately (and deservedly) drew an additional unsportsmanlike foul.  Immediately after the shocking loss McDuffie had words with an official coming off the field that per multiple sources were described as “incredibly accusatory” and in comments to Marquel Slaughter of the Buffalo News gave Maple Grove next-to-no credit on their win, accusing the officials of giving the Thunderdragon two touchdowns and saying they didn’t deserve to win. Per a source, McDuffie had comments much harsher that were not printed.

Look, I’m a big Bennett fan and of city schools in general. I played Harvard Cup football back in my day and will always root for a Buffalo school to win championships.  I’m also an admirer of the tremendous job Coach McDuffie has done with the Tigers program.  However, his actions and words, both during the game and after were completely off the mark.  The Tigers didn’t lose because the officials cheated them.  Bennett lost because they faced an underdog who believed they could win and played like it. The Thunderdragon were well coached, had a sound game plan and weren’t intimidated.  Meanwhile, Bennett slept walked through most the first half and made too many mistakes. As great as they were throughout the season, they had their worst game of the season on the biggest stage—it’s as simple as that.  Despite McDuffie’s public statement saying otherwise, MGCL was very deserving of the win.

Talented Underclassmen: Several players we’ll be seeing plenty of next year had their formidable talents on display this week. We’ve already mentioned McDuffie, Janca, Benson and Lynch. Some other gifted players we saw this week slated to return in 2016 include Dominic Prince and Dejean McCullough from Burgard, Eric Bartnik and Stephan Parker from Cheektowaga, Austin Breidenstiein and Justin Kimble  fromWest Seneca East, Trent Gray (Frewsburg), Austin Grinols (Ellicottville/Franklinville), Marcelus Toliver and Derrick Bishop from Bennett, Tyler White and Jahlel St. John from Kenmore West, and Josh Dahl from Orchard Park.