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Timely turnaround

Defense helps Purple Tigers win down stretch

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Cortland’s Nick Bell (9), left, takes down Syracuse Tech running back Jaheim Rosa (1), right, in the first quarter of the Purple Tigers’ 8-6 win Saturday.

The Cortland High football team turned a disaster around Saturday against visiting Syracuse Institute of Technology Central.

Through a disastrous three quarters, the Purple Tigers had managed just three yards of total offense against their Section 3 Class B West visitors. And yet they trailed just 6-0, thanks largely to a strong defensive effort. And it was that defense that would help turn things around in the fourth quarter in what would end up an improbable 8-6 win by the hosts.

With the Eagles driving deep into CHS territory, sophomore free safety Mike Guido had intercepted a pass from ITC junior quarterback Tayvon Ratchford at the Purple Tiger nine yard line on the next-to-last play of the third. A seemingly mundane six-yard run by Cortland senior running back Nick Bell, to the hosts’ 15, proved to be a sign of things to come as the third quarter came to a close.

From there, it took CHS seven plays to cover 85 yards to tie the game, 66 of that coming from Bell on five carries, picking up his team’s initial first down of the game before embarking on a 40-yard touchdown run down the left side to tie it up with 9:05 left. A flag on the play that capped the hosts’ only sustained drive of the game turned out to be a facemask call on the visitors, enforced on the conversion.

Without halfback/kicker Noah Barber, who had been injured two plays before the TD, the Purple Tigers got a two-point conversion run from sophomore receiver Jaden Fitch, in motion from his receiver position on the play, to close out the scoring in the contest.

“It’s a win,” Cortland coach Pete Reif said with a grin after his team had evened its record at 1-1. “It was absolutely ugly; we had a game plan that didn’t work. Syracuse is very athletic and did a great job defensively. We wanted to get the ball outside but weren’t able to. Their defensive ends played wider than we anticipated and their tackles were tough to try to seal inside. We knew if we could push them outside we could create more running room between the tackles, and that’s exactly what finally happened.

“This team kept fighting the entire time. There’s no quit in these guys. We won the turnover and penalty battles; our kids were more disciplined and focused and did the small things they needed to to win. I think our guys were in better shape; it looked to me like we had more energy in the fourth quarter than in the first.

Cortland was totally ineffective on offense in the first half, with four punts and a final-seconds kneel-down in five possessions. The Eagles (0-2), meanwhile, started out slow but embarked on a long second-quarter drive that ended on an incomplete fourth-down pass from the Cortland four. That flipped the field in the visitors’ favor, as the Purple Tigers again went three-and-out and the resulting punt gave ITC the ball on the hosts’ 37. It took the Eagles seven plays to put up the first points of the game, capped by a one-yard plunge by senior running back Jaheim Rosa with 4:39 left in the half. Rosa was then stuffed on the conversion run.

Neither team threatened the rest of the first half. ITC senior running back Richard Alexander took the opening kickoff of the second half 85 yards for a touchdown that was nullified by an illegal block call. The visitors subsequently drove to the Cortland 35 on the ensuing possession before punting and got the ball back on the hosts’ 34 after CHS again stalled on offense.

They got down to the Cortland 22 before Guido’s interception ended the drive. “I was just playing back, the quarterback’s throw was short and I got underneath it,” Guido said. “This was a team effort; we didn’t quit when it mattered and just kept pushing.”

Bell lugged the ball six times for 72 yards on the ensuing drive, including the 40-yard TD run. “I got a couple of great blocks and followed them,” he said of his big play. “I saw the outside was open, cut out and had one guy to beat. I beat him. My teammates and coaches kept pushing me to do my best, and I did what I had to do.”

“When I got the ball there was a huge hole on the right side of the line,” Fitch said in recounting his game-winning conversion. “I lowered my head and pushed through.”

The Eagles weren’t done yet, but were again hurt by a huge penalty on the ensuing possession. ITC picked up four first downs en route to the Cortland four-yard line, and after Alexander was stopped for no gain on first down the visitors were flagged for a personal foul out of the resulting pileup, moving them back to the 19. Ratchford then threw an incomplete pass into the end zone before his short screen while backing up was snagged by CHS senior defensive end Mike Millar at the 25 and returned to the 32.

“I was able to read the screen and did what the coaches told me to do (covering the running back on the play) and just got lucky,” Millar said.

Cortland drove to the ITC 47 on the ensuing possession before punting, and on the third of three incomplete passes senior receiver Mandela Choyitungiye, the intended target, was injured. That gave frustrated Eagles head coach Cedric Stevens the opportunity to lambaste the officials for what he perceived as an illegal hit, which drew delay of game and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. A last-ditch pass by Ratchford from deep in the visitors’ territory fell incomplete, and the Purple Tigers then ran out the clock.

Stevens, whose team was flagged 14 times for 125 yards in the game (to the winners’ five for 35 yards) was still agitated afterwards.

“Cortland fought back and got the job done, and this program still hasn’t found a way to finish,” he said, remembering a Purple Tiger comeback over the Eagles last year for a 16-12 Senior Night win. “But who holds Section 3’s officials accountable for bad calls? The momentum changed after that TD was taken off the boards. Our kids work too hard to have the refs take that away from them.”

The Purple Tigers finished with just 105 yards of total offense, Bell accounting for 91 yards of that total on 14 carries with the TD. Sophomore quarterback Collin Williams went 2-for-8 passing for two yards with no interceptions. The Eagles had 262 yards of total offense, Rosa with 95 yards and the TD on 12 carries and Ratchford 4-for-16 passing for 60 yards with the two interceptions.

Reif noted that Barber’s status is uncertain for Friday’s game against rival Homer Central on Moiseichik Field, which will be televised by Spectrum Sports and start at 7 p.m.

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