SYRACUSE — The Rye Neck defense had been gashed up front for much of the last three quarters. Chenango Forks wasn’t explosive, but it was big and tough and had imposed that physicality to take a one-touchdown lead.
So when the Panthers scored with 4:02 remaining, coach Nick Ianello made a tough choice, but one in line with the philosophy of him and his team. The risk — one of several in the game — went unrewarded. Chenango Forks stopped Pedro M. Cueto short on a 2-point conversion and burned the remaining time to beat Rye Neck, 28-27, in a dramatic Class C state championship game on Sunday at the Carrier Dome.
“It came down to that 2-point conversion,” Ianello said shortly after his program’s first appearance in a state final. “Maybe in hindsight, maybe I should’ve gone for the kick and played for overtime, but we got here on what we do. I wanted to go for it, and I think the kids wanted to go for the two points and the win.”
“It was the right call,” Panthers senior Jakob Calvini said. “Today, we just couldn’t get it in.”
It was an afternoon of bold choices for Ianello and his Panthers, who, after an easy opening scoring drive, quickly learned what they had to face against the Section 4 champ. In particular, it was MVP Isaiah Zimmer who kept busy. The 190-pound senior rushed 39 times for 175 yards and three scores, pounding away from the Blue Devils’ favored three-back sets.
Zimmer’s running led to three second-quarter touchdowns, but one came after Rye Neck (11-1) had been stopped on a fake punt at its 30. Quarterback John Colm Sweeney connected on a 30-yard touchdown to Andrew Ziegenfus one play later.
“I found it similar to the first Woodlands game,” said Ianello, whose team beat Woodlands 41-40 in overtime during the regular season. “I thought it was going to be that kind of game, back and forth. I figured I had to do some stuff to keep them off guard.”
Senior Ryan Morningstar did his part in that regard. After Sweeney’s touchdown pass, he responded with an 88-yard kickoff return for a score. When Rye Neck quickly fell behind again, quarterback Thomas Pipolo found Calvini for a 9-yard touchdown pass on fourth down. Cueto’s 2-point run tied the score 21-21 heading into halftime.
The second half remained physical, but the Panthers withstood it until Zimmer scored his third touchdown with 8:25 to play. Again, Rye Neck replied, driving 80 yards in 11 plays and drawing within a point on Pipolo’s third touchdown pass — this one to Jake Sevean on fourth down.
Ianello called for the bruising, 220-pound Cueto again on the 2-point play. He ran to the right, just as he had earlier, but was stopped well short of the goal line.
Chenango Forks (12-1) burned almost the entire clock and both Panthers timeouts. Rye Neck had one play at its 28, but Pipolo was sacked.
He finished 6 for 10 for 113 yards and was named the game’s most outstanding offensive back.
“Our motto all along has been, ‘Play to win,’ ” Pipolo said. “We’re not going to sit back and let things happen. We have to attack. Those plays just didn’t go our way today.”
The Panthers came within a yard or two of a state title, but Sunday also marked their first trip to the Dome on the heels of the program’s first sectional title.
“In a couple days, we’ll feel good about it,” Pipolo said. “Right now, it stings.”
Below is Frank’s video highlights of the game. It includes Pipolo’s TD pass to Calvini that was called back for a penalty and Chris Richart and Jake Sevean’s key pass breakup on fourth down in the end zone.
After the 1:50 mark, the video includes all of the key sequences on Rye Neck’s final drive: Pipolo’s dump pass to Sevean for a big gain; Pipolo’s TD pass to Sevean that brought Rye Neck within one point; and Cueto being tackled for a loss on the two-point conversion with 4:02 remaining.