MOUNT VERNON — Two weeks ago, the Rye Neck football team had played as many state tournament games as Super Bowls. Yet on Sunday at noon, the Panthers will kick off the Class C state championship against Chenango Forks, a Binghamton-area school making its record 29th state playoff appearance.
The contrast is obvious, but ultimately meaningless for Rye Neck. The tiny district tucked in Mamaroneck on the Sound Shore, and surrounded by Section 1 football giants Rye, Harrison and New Rochelle, figures both teams will be forced to overcome nerves playing at the Carrier Dome.
Despite its storied history, Chenango Forks, a 12-time Section 4 champ, hasn’t played for a state title since it lost to Rye in 2007, ending a seven-year stretch that included six trips to the Class B final.
“I think it’s new for them, too,” Rye Neck coach Nick Ianello said. “It’s a totally different group. It’s a storied program, but I’m not sure that it will make a difference. They’ll be enamored by the Jumbotron just like us. I think it’ll be about who settles in first.”
Ianello’s Panthers have proven their adaptability the last two weeks. Their first two trips to Dietz Stadium in Kingston ended in definitive victories — first 47-6 over Section 9’s Burke Catholic and then a 14-0 shutout of defending state champ Hoosick Falls, a seven-time Section 2 winner.
“I don’t think it’s a factor, really,” junior Jake Sevean said. “We have a lot of seniors on our team, so we’re very experienced. I don’t think where we play will make a difference in how we play.”
The spacious, sterile Carrier Dome will make for a far different venue than gritty, frigid Dietz. To ease the transition to playing indoors, the Panthers practiced four times this week at the Sports Underdome in Mount Vernon.
They ended up in the turf bubble by chance last week when it rained the day before their state semifinal against Hoosick Falls. At Ianello’s request, the district invested in additional practices there this week in order to simulate what his players will experience in the Dome.
“I think it helps a ton,” said senior captain Tom Tripodi, a two-way starter on the line. “The air in the Dome is different. Just getting used to it gives us an edge.”
The Panthers will have a first look at the Carrier Dome today, albeit from the stands. They are scheduled to arrive in Syracuse early and attend this afternoon’s Syracuse-Boston College game.
Athletic director Joe Ceglia secured the program and its supporters 68 tickets. The Yorktown High School product played lacrosse at Syracuse and helped the Orange win the 2000 national championship.
A look from the stands may not chase away those game-day nerves. Rye Neck is eager to play in the Carrier Dome. Players said that opportunity has been their primary focus — not Chenango Forks’ history as a state power.
“It’s going to be amazing,” Tripodi said. “I can’t wait. I think we’ll be able to adjust. Everything that’s been thrown at us over the years, we’ve been able to adjust to. I think we’ll be fine.”
Class C state championship
Rye Neck (11-0) vs. Section 4’s Chenango Forks (11-1)
When: Sunday, noon
Where: Carrier Dome, Syracuse University
Key players: Rye Neck — Jakob Calvini (6-2, 210), Sr., RB/LB; Pedro M. Cueto (5-11, 185), Sr., RB/DL; Dom Brescia (5-11, 180), Jr., RB/DB. Chenango Forks — Ryan Bronson (5-8, 185), Jr., RB/DB; L.J. Watson (5-10, 175), Fr., RB/DB; Paul Groover (6-0, 300), Sr., OT/DT.
Outlook: While this is Rye Neck’s first appearance in a state final, this is Forks’ seventh trip, tying Dobbs Ferry for the state tournament record. The 12-time Section 4 champ played in six of seven Class B state finals from 2001-07, but has not reached the Carrier Dome since, despite winning three other sectional championships after dropping to Class C. Still, this will mark the program’s state-record 29th playoff game and just the third for Rye Neck. That lack of experience won’t matter to the Panthers, who have won 18 of their last 19 games, 12 of them by shutout, including last week’s 14-0 defeat of defending state champ Hoosick Falls. Chenango Forks runs the same option offense it did in previous state final appearances against Harrison (2002) and Rye (2003-05, 2007). Bronson and Watson are just two of four backs who will touch the ball. Groover and co. give the Blue Devils size up front, which they’ll have to use to their advantage. Rye Neck has better athletes on the perimeter. Cueto is a bruising runner, but Brescia, Calvini, Ryan Morningstar, Jake Sevean, and Matt Garcia are among the two-way standouts who fortify a very balanced Panther team.
Chenango Forks coach Dave Hogan: “I don’t think there’s just one player who jumps out at us. They have four or five people who are pretty athletic. They’re fast on defense. On offense they have at lease four different guys who can run and their QB can throw the ball and hurt you.”
“On defense, it’s the team speed. They seem to swarm to the ball. I think it is fairly rare to see this. It’s kind of rare even on defense. Teams will usually have a stud linebacker or a stud safety that takes over. You don’t see that with them. They do a lot of things really well.”
“I think they do very well with their playaction passing. They can hurt you with big plays. They’ve hurt other teams with big plays. I guess you have to tackle well for sure. They seem to break a lot of tackles.”
“I think it’s funny. People are asking me, ‘Who are they like?’ Well, I think they’re a lot like us.”
“We run the option. I guess you’d say that I like having three guys in the backfield. That’s my favorite offense.”
“We have the same coaching staff. We have a different head coach, but the same coaching staff that we had when we played against Ry and Harrison. I’d say we’re similar. Our defense has kind evolved and adapted to the offensive stuff, teams spreading out.”
“I think their coach is correct. Both teams are very excited to play for the state championship. It’s a lot different (for our team). A lot of these kids were in sixth or seventh grade back when we went last time, so they’re very excited about being able to go.”