Jonathan Thomas looks for a hole in Cleveland Hills loss to state power Hornell in the far West Regional game for Class C at All-High Stadium. He scored the team’s lone TD. (Photo by Jeff Barnes)
After winning the fifth Section VI championship in Cleveland Hill history, the 2012 Golden Eagles got a shot at leaving their mark as the only team to win the Regional Championship.
Standing in their way happened to be one of the greatest football programs New York State has ever seen.
Coming into the game, Hornell was riding a 49-game winning streak, representing Section V as the defending three-time state champion in Class B before moving down to “C” this season.
The records were put aside when the first whistle blew at All High Stadium last Saturday.
Down 14-6, the Eagles began a drive for a potential game-tying score before losing a fumble deep in their own territory. That turnover sparked 13 unanswered points for the Red Raiders, who put the game away at 27-6.
“Great season,” said Cleve Hill coach Glen Graham. “We were able to avenge our loss to Fredonia from earlier in the season in the Sectional championship. That was tremendous. Unfortunately, there can only be one “C” team that’s going to be happy at the end of it all. And I hope Hornell takes it all the way.”
“What we wanted to do was make sure we win the week that we’re in,” said Hornell head coach Erik Werner, who is in his first year taking over for Gene Mastin, who has been the coach since 1983. “Everything that happened before was great, but we just wanted to win so we can play another week of football.”
Hornell, whose active 50-game winning streak is the second longest in the country, was led by a three-touchdown performance from senior Julian Reinhart, who returned a punt, pass and pick on his way to receiving Offensive MVP honors.
“We came out ready for this game,” said Cleveland Hill senior quarterback Jacob Radlich. “ We knew how good they were. We would’ve rather made them 49-1, but we played a really tough team.”
Defensive MVP was awarded to Cleveland Hill senior Jonathan Thomas, who had 14 total tackles and caught the Eagles’ lone touchdown.
“We fought and battled,” said Thomas. “We were down, never gave up, kept fighting and gave it our all. That’s all we could ask for.”
Hornell went into halftime with a 7-0 advantage from a first quarter touchdown by Brendan Buisch, who was on the other end of a 15-yard strike by Richie Harkenrider.
“At 7-0, it’s anyone’s ballgame,” Thomas said about going into halftime. “We were still in it after all that and just the belief that we could get it done was definitely in our minds.”
It could have been a totally different ball game after a handful of Radlich’s deep pass attempts to Jared Watkins and Ny’Juan Rainey were just barely out of reach, which would have resulted in some huge gains and maybe even scores.
“We missed a lot of opportunities,” said Radlich. “I couldn’t see most of them because I was on the ground by then, but I thought they had good chances of being completed. But Watkins is only a junior. He’s going to be a heck of a receiver for them next year.”
Halfway through the third quarter, Reinhart extended the lead to 14 when he took a punt back 76 yards. Cleve Hill was able to respond on the next drive when Radlich found Thomas wide open in the flats for a 9-yard score on 4th-and-goal.
“The defense definitely had a lot of confidence that we could make a stop,” Thomas said about the defensive huddle after that touchdown drive. “We do that, and the offense gets another chance. We definitely felt like we were in the game.”
The Eagles’ defense held their own in the second half, only giving up one touchdown reception to Reinhart on a short field after the offense lost a fumble on their own 21 in the fourth quarter. But on the ensuing drive, Reinhart caught his second of three interceptions, returning this one 44-yards for a 27-6 lead with over six minutes remaining.
With their leading rusher, Brandon Thomas, coming back next year, leading tackler in Josh White, along with the likes of Aaron Jackson, Watkins and juniors from an undefeated junior varsity squad, Cleveland Hill is already looking forward to returning to the Regionals in 2013.
“I told the seniors to remember that we love them, myself, the entire coaching staff and the team,’ Graham said. “We have a good number of guys with the opportunity to come back. I told them to remember the work that it took to get here and do extra so maybe we can get it and go on.”