GROTON — After contributing a pair of touchdowns to help Groton Central secure victory in an early-season Section 4 football clash of unbeatens Friday evening, senior running back Dylan Cooper simply stated this opinion.
“It’s our division to lose right now. We’re 3-0, and that’s the best you can do,” offered up Cooper.
That’s exactly the position these state-ranked Indians find themselves in after earning a 32-14 win over visiting Elmira Notre Dame in the winner’s Class D Division VIII opener at Ross Field, though second-year head coach Tom Goddard is taking a more cautious view of his team’s success.
“We can’t overlook anybody. We’re not looking past anybody,” said Goddard after adding the Crusaders (1-1 Division VIII, 2-1 overall) to the list of 2016 victims. They join rival Dryden and Lansing as teams Groton — ranked 14th in this week’s Class D state poll — has knocked off.
“Everyone says, ‘Oh, they’ve got Tioga at the end.’ But we’ve got to get there first,” added Goddard, Tioga being the defending Section 4 and New York State Class D champion who also resides in Division VIII and is the last team on Groton’s regular season schedule. “Other teams are struggling a little bit, but a fumble here and an interception there and who knows. This was the one we wanted.”
This was the one Groton got as running backs Cooper and Matt Gombas both rushed for over 100 yards and scampered for touchdowns, as senior quarterback Daimon Shoemaker connected on a pair of touchdown tosses and as a swarming defense held Elmira Notre Dame in check while getting fourth quarter interceptions from active outside linebacker Keller Pai and defensive back Dione Martin.
Groton scored a touchdown in each quarter and survived losing three fumbles, including turning the ball over on the opening drive that had reached the Elmira Notre Dame 6-yard line.
But turnovers plagued the Crusaders, too, with three lost fumbles — two of those recovered by Groton lineman Blake Clark — to go along with those two picked off passes.
“We had our opportunities. We created turnovers, but uncharacteristic of this team we turned the ball over way too many times. You’re not going to beat a well-coached team turning the ball over that many times,” mused END coach Mike D’Aloisio of the second half miscues that kept his team scoreless after heading into intermission down just 16-14.
THIS GAME WAS up for grabs at halftime, as the two sides swapped touchdowns.
On a fourth down snap from the END 4-yard line, Groton QB Shoemaker rolled out and found Kyle Howser open for the opening touchdown. Cooper swept left for the two-point conversion.
The Crusaders responded with a 63-yard drive in seven plays, the seventh being the 30-yard TD pass launched by quarterback Gary Raupers that Kyrese Fisher caught in stride. Derrick Stark pulled in a PAT slant pass to knot things at 8-8.
Groton staged its own 63-yard scoring excursion next, helped out by a 4th-and-7 gamble from midfield. Shoemaker rolled right, threw back to his left on a screen pass and 37 yards later Cooper had carried the Indians to a crucial first down.
“Honestly, at that time my leg was hurting but it was a really nice call on the coaches’ part,” said Cooper of the play.
“We pulled it out and popped it back and ran the screen,” is how Coach Goddard recalled the vital play. “We’ve got great backs. You give them space and they’re gone.”
Cooper finished off the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run and added a two-point conversion on the same sweep for a 16-8 lead with 6:07 left before halftime. The Crusaders used up the rest of that time before scoring on the final play of the second quarter, picking up a crucial fourth down along the way before Raupers scrambled to locate Trevon Swan with a 4-yard TD pass.
Elmira Notre Dame thought it had tied things up at 16-16, but Stark was called for offensive pass interference latching onto PAT pass and the visitors trailed by two.
THOSE WERE THE final points for the Crusaders, as the third quarter started with an END lost fumble, a Groton lost fumble, an END lost fumble and a Groton lost fumble over the opening eight plays.
But after Elmira Notre Dame running back Iman Mckay was stuffed on a 4th-and-2 plunge up the middle at the Groton 43-yard line, a Cooper 14-yard run started an Indians’ scoring drive.
Four plays later, Shoemaker connected on a perfectly thrown 29-yard touchdown pass to Cooper, with a Gombas two-point conversion run hiking the Groton lead to 24-14 with just over five minutes left in the third quarter.
Misfortune cost the Crusaders two scoring chances. In the third quarter Stark lost his helmet and the football after making a catch and run to the Groton 33-yard line — a turnover hotly debated by Coach D’Aloisio and the END sideline folks.
In the fourth quarter came a fourth down fake punt, with Raupers escaping trouble before finding Swan for an apparent first down that was called back. Raupers had barely crossed the line of scrimmage and was flagged for an illegal pass that turned the ball over to Groton.
The Indians failed to cash in after starting that possession at the END 24, but then Pai stretched out to intercept a sideline pass and two plays later Gombas was breaking free off right tackle behind 345-pound blocker Nick de Bruyn for a 35-yard end zone jaunt. Cooper’s PAT run concluded the scoring.
Martin came up with an interception to end END’s final scoring chance, Groton then running out the clock.
Gombas finished with 116 yards rushing on 21 carries and Cooper covered 109 yards on 18 trips. Cooper also snared a pair of Shoemaker passes for 66 yards.
“WE’RE A LITTLE bigger and stronger, I think. It was just a heck of a team effort,” said Coach Goddard of the Groton victory, as the Indians move on to visit Elmira Heights Edison this coming Saturday.
Tioga thumped Edison 66-14 last night.
“We committed some youthful mistakes tonight and we’ll learn from it and they’ll grow from it and we’ll get better,” said END’s D’Aloisio. “I was proud of how tough we played for 48 minutes. We didn’t quit. We kept playing hard, and sometimes for a coach that’s more important than the score.
“Playing at their home, it’s always difficult up here,” he added. “I think they knew they were in a ball game tonight.”