By PAUL GOTHAM
WILLIAMSVILLE, N.Y. — With the game and regional championship on the line, Bennett High head coach Steven McDuffie deferred to his team for the final play call.
The decision paid dividends.
E’Ryan Lawrence scored the winning touchdown as time expired, and Bennett claimed a third straight New York State Class AA Far West Regional championship with a 26-21 victory over McQuaid, Saturday night at Williamsville South High School.
“At first, I wanted to throw the ball,” McDuffie said. “But when they came over to the sideline, it was a consensus that we were going to run the ball. ‘Coach, if we can’t get two yards, we don’t deserve to win the game.’”
Lawrence took a handoff from teammate Sherrad Bennard III with one second remaining and powered through the middle for the game winner.
The drive started 88 yards away with 3:51 left on the game clock and McQuaid leading 21-20.
“I thought they showed the heart of a champion right there,” McDuffie said. “When they came over to sideline, not one time did I see anything in their eyes where they didn’t believe they could win the football game. It was a collective effort.”
The Tigers marched down the field but needed to spike the ball with one second remaining to set up the decisive play.
“By the grace of God we had one second left on the clock. That was real nerve-wracking let me tell you.”
Trailing 20-14, McQuaid took the lead for the first time in the second half when Will DiMarco connected with Dan Geen on fourth down and two yards to go for a touchdown to give the Jesuit Knights a 21-20 lead with 8:52 remaining in the game.
“We got an outstanding group of kids,” McQuaid head coach Bobby Bates said. “I’m just really proud of everything they’ve done this season. We’ve battled through a lot of adversity. I can’t say enough about how they play and how they are as young men.
“It’s a phenomenal group to be around. It’s sad that it has to come to an end. They played a heckuva game tonight.”
The win was the third straight for Bennett over McQuaid in the state quarterfinal. The Tigers have made back-to-back appearances in the state finals including last year’s 42-8 victory over Newburgh (I) in the state championship game.
“They’re a tough team,” Bates said. “They’re physical team. They got a lot of athletes. They got kids who can make plays all over the place. They can stretch you horizontally. They can stretch you vertically. They play tough defense. They’re a really good team and the best to them as they move on in the states.”
Johnny Harding got McQuaid on the scoreboard first as the Jesuit Knights scored on their first drive of the game.
Bennett responded. Bennard connected with Lawrence on a 65-yard strike. After a two-point conversion, the Tigers led 8-7.
Bennett extended its lead early in the second quarter when Bennard led Ja’Meer Thomas for a 75-yard score. The Tigers, though, failed on their two-point try and had a 14-7 lead.
Harding took a direct snap from one-yard out and scored to tie the game at 14.
Bennard scored one yard out to give Bennett a 20-14 lead with 11:34 to go in the game.
The Jesuit Knights rallied to take lead on their next drive.
“McQuaid’s a great program,” McDuffie said. “It’s the upper echelon of Rochester. We expect them to be a good football team.”
Bennett will play Christian Brothers Academy of Syracuse next Saturday. A 6 PM kickoff is scheduled at Cicero-North Syracuse High School.