Grit, determination, togetherness.
All these words could describe the Homer Central football squad on this special occasion, as the Trojans weathered two first-quarter Mexico touchdowns before staging a comeback and grabbing their only lead early in the fourth quarter.
John Horner III scored his third touchdown of the game to get that accomplished, but it was quarterback Jacob Rivers’ 2-point conversion run that put the Trojans on top 23-22 with just 10:56 left in Friday night’s Section 3 Class B semifinal showdown.
Senior Rivers added another 2-point run after flipping a 4-yard touchdown pass to end Dante Yacavone with 27 seconds left to seal a 31-22 triumph over third-seed Mexico (7-2) at Fayetteville-Manlius High School.
The second-seeded Trojans (8-1 overall) are now headed to Syracuse University’s Carrier Dome on Sunday, Nov. 6, to face top-seed and defending state champion Cazenovia in the 3 p.m. Class B sectional championship game.
The Lakers (8-1) were 37-14 winners over fourth-seed Chittenango (6-3) in the first game of the doubleheader at F-M.
Rivers made the big plays on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
He recovered a Mexico fumble at the Trojan 2-yard line with 1:24 left in the first half to keep the Tigers from improving their 15-7 lead. In the fourth quarter, Rivers picked off a Dante Turo pass at the Mexico 31-yard line and returned it to the 12-yard line to set up the Trojans’ go-ahead score.
“I just kept telling the boys if you play with heart and we play together that there was no way we would not make up the deficit,” Rivers said. “On the interception, I saw the ball late and it hit me right in the chest. It was a perfect pass by him. It was great. It certainly will be a highlight for me.”
“Jacob Rivers had a moment in that first half,” Homer coach Gary Podsiedlik said. “He made a very positive comment in the huddle. The kids saw he didn’t want the season to end. Jacob is a multi-sport athlete and has basketball coming up, but he’s not done with football yet. They knew what he said was truthful and honest. They responded with their improved play. The kids gave it all in those final 24 minutes.”
“The secret to going to The Dome and play for a sectional championship is having a team willing to play for you for every second of every game,” senior co-captain right tackle/defensive lineman Luke Sears said. “This team, like the team that won in The Dome in 2014, sticks together. We fight for each other. We’re fighters and we don’t stop.”
“We just grinded through,” senior co-captain left guard/linebacker Cody Johnson said. “This guys are not just players or teammates, it’s family. Everything is for our family now. Everything is together. We played football as a family.
“It’s a great Caz team we face next,” he continued. “As long as we keep coming as a family, we’ll have great results.”
HOMER HAD ITS initial drive of the game stopped and Mexico struck quickly to take an 8-0 lead. Tiger senior quarterback Turo scored his first of three touchdowns on a 53-yard scamper with 8:18 left in the first quarter. He added the 2-point conversion run.
The Trojans answered with a 12-play, 65-yard scoring drive. Horner capped the drive with a 1-yard plunge as Homer trailed 8-7 with 1:40 left in the opening quarter.
Three plays later, Turo broke free on a 37-yard touchdown jaunt and a 15-7 advantage.
Both teams moved the ball in the second quarter, but neither team found the end zone. Turo finished the half with 12 carries for 202 yards The rest of the Tigers accounted for just 17 more rushing yards.
Homer held Mexico to a three-and-out to start the third quarter before tying the game up. The Trojans went 67 yards in seven plays. Horner capped the drive with a 34-yard scoring run. Tucker O’Donnell kicked the extra point to knot the score at 15-15 with 7:10 to go in the third quarter.
Mexico responded quickly when Turo ran 75 yards for the touchdown on third-and seven from his own 25-yard run. Kyle Pettit kicked his second extra point as the Tigers led 22-15 with 5:25 showing in the third quarter.
The Trojan offensive line opened holes during a 12-play drive that stalled at the Mexico 22.
Turo’s second down pass was picked by Rivers and he ran out of bounds at the Tiger 12. Turo gave Rivers a late push when he was out of play and the personal foul penalty moved the ball to the Mexico six. It took one play for Horner to notch his third touchdown. Rivers ran the conversion a Homer led 23-22 with 10:56 left in the game.
THE TEAMS TRADED punts and Mexico took possession with 2:44 to go at their own 20. Turo fumbled the first snap for a 7-yard loss. After an incomplete pass, Reno Gaffney sacked Turo for a 4-yard loss back to the Tiger nine-yard.
On fourth down, Turo’s pass to Carter Haynes was incomplete and the Trojans took over with 1:30 left.
On fourth down, Rivers found Yacavone unguarded in the end zone. He tossed the scoring strike and Podsiedlik made the call to go for two points, Rivers rolled left and into the end zone for the 9-point cushion.
Turo had one more long run of 34 yards to the Homer 34 before spiking the ball with seven seconds left. Turo tried to complete a pass to Eastman on the final play of the game, but the receiver went flagged for going out of bounds and coming back into the field of play.
The game ended on the play and the Trojans celebrated a return to The Dome.
Horner finished the game with 149 yards on 29 carries as the Trojans rushed for 216 yards as a team. Rivers completed three-of-eight passing attempts for 36 yards. In addition to the Yacavone touchdown catch. Krillin Drake had a 26-yard reception and Guerrera a six yard catch.
“It’s great that we are going to The Dome,” Horner said. “The only reason I scored was because I followed my blockers. They gave me some holes you could drive a truck through. That was the toughness defense I’ve gone up against this year, but it was a fun game.”
Turo was the Mexico offense with 23 carries for 309 yards and he completed 3-of-12 passes for 54 yards. Turo accounted for 363 of the Tigers 381 offensive yards.
“TURO IS AN outstanding athlete,” Sears said. “Coach allowed me and Vinny (Basile) to tell them what we liked to do on defense which was pushing out to the sides towards the C gaps. That allowed the linebackers to do what they wanted. We were allowed to gauge the game as we saw fit. We know the game so well. We can analyze things and went to town.”
Sears was a sophomore of that 2014 Class B championship team that had seniors Alec Bush, Gage Root and Anthony Basile among the guys on the roster. This time around, Sears is joined by younger brothers of those guys in Horner (Root’s brother), Kevin Bush and offensive line mate Basile.
“I think Johnny and I have worked just as hard as my brother and Gage,” Senior running back/linebacker Kevin Bush said.
“We make a real good combination at running back. The defense has been just as good.
“Johnny has been doing well running all season,” he added. “He’s a hard runner and doesn’t let anybody take the ball away from him. He’s a really good player. We are working hard in practice.”