Game they have waited for: Tioga ready for rematch with Randolph
A year ago the Tioga Tigers watched their season come to an end one game short of the New York Class D football state finals with a one-point loss to Randolph.
Ever since that day the players have had a rematch on their minds. They have thought about it, worked hard to prepare for it and then week after week tried hard to ignore it so they could focus on what it took to get here.
"It's always been in the back of our minds," Tioga coach Nick Aiello said. "We have always wanted to focus one game at a time and I think this group has done a great job, but it's always been in the back of our minds."
For Tioga's players this game is something they have dreamed of ever since last season end.
"In the back of our minds from the first day of preseason was that one point loss," Senior Carter Jackson said. "One half yard away on a two-point try."
"Since last winter we had this game circled on the calendar," senior Jake Howland said. "We had to take it one week at a time and we are finally here."
That Tioga and Randolph enter the game ranked No. 1 (Randolph) and two in the state, both with unbeaten records is something the players knew could end up happening.
"We have known about this game since day one," senior Mike Melella said. "We wanted this team since we lost to them last year. We wanted to get back to this point and get some revenge."
"It's been on our to do list," senior Ryan Vergason said. "We knew each week we had to take care of what was next, but in the back of our minds we knew it was gong to be us and Randolph at this point."
The Tioga players have heard the talk, they know that more than just the teams have been anticipating this game.
"It's not only been on our minds," Jackson said. "But, it's been on the minds of our fans, on the minds of you and the people who cover us. It's been on everybody's minds."
And this is a game that has the players excited.
"I think they are really excited," Aiello said. "It's an opportunity to play Randolph and this game has been one of our goals all year."
A year ago it was Randolph who picked up a 7-6 win, stopping Tyler Spires a half yard from the goalline on a two-point try to secure the win.
The players know that with two of the biggest, best lines in the state, that could be where the game is won, or lost.
"That's where it was won last year, in the trenches, and I think the guys all know it's going to be a battle," Aiello said. "We talked about it all week, one play might be the difference."
The players know every yard could be the difference in this game.
"Football is a game of inches and last year one inch was all the difference," Melella said. "All offseason that's what I thought about. That one yard that kept us from the state championship. We worked hard to get batter to get those extra yards."
While Spires is gone this year sophomore Jesse Manuel and junior Brad Jump have helped lead another dominant Tioga run game.
Manuel set the school record with 2,131 yards on the ground and 25 touchdowns and Jump is over 1,000 yards on the season with 10 scores.
"I know I have to fight to get every extra yard," Manuel said.
For the linemen they know they have some talented backs behind them.
"We are happy with what we have done on the line, but it's a pleasure blocking for these backs," Melella said. "It's not too often that you have two 1,000-yard rushers in a season."
"A lot of people say everything starts in the trenches and for us it starts in the trenches and ends in the backfield," Jackson said. "Jesse and Brad have done a great job and they fight hard for everything they get."
The linemen all know that this is going to be a big test.
"It's going to be fun, we are ready for it," Howland said.
"We expect a war and I'm sure they expect a war," Jackson said. "They may try some new wrinkles on us and we might try some new wrinkles with them."
Randolph's running game is led by Chris Doubek, who went over 2,000 yards last week and has 29 rushing touchdowns this year.
"He was their fullback last year and he runs like a fullback," Aiello said. "He's a big, downhill runner."
With Randolph's big running game, and after a 7-6 game last year, Tioga knows the defense could be the key tonight.
"It's going to be tough, we are going to have to battle for every yard," Howland said. "We have to work hard to try and churn out yardage. We are prepared for a battle. It's not likely to be a blowout. It would be nice, but it's probably not going to happen, so we are prepared to battle."
The Tigers feel like their defense is ready for the challenge.
"Our defense has played really well down the stretch," Aiello said. "They have risen to the occassion. Especially the first unit that has been solid all season long."
While both teams rely on the run, both passing games have started to emerge this year.
Vergason has thrown for 471 yards and eight touchdowns this year, and also has 250 yards rushing with eight scores, while Mitchell Maycock has thrown for 850 yards and 14 touchdowns for Randolph.
"Ryan has developed a ton this year," Aiello said. "Last year I think when he broke his collarbone it set him back and this year he has really developed. Their quarterback, from last year to this year has improved a lot as well."
If Randolph slows down the Tioga rushing attack, Vergason is ready to throw the ball if needed.
"We have worked on it all year and it's a work in progress," he said. "I am ready if we have to open it up some."
Both teams have had plenty of success in the past.
Since 2005 Randolph has won three state titles, while Tioga is making their third straight trip to the state semifinals.
While the Tigers weren't able to make it to the finals the past two years, they feel like this is their time.
"We are getting through all the phases I think," Jackson said. "Sophomore year we lost to a Class C team that dropped down and this year we beat one last week in Herkimer. Now, we have a chance against Randolph again." "That's the goal, ultimately the goal is we want to take the next step," Aiello said.
"We don't want to be second best," Vergason said.
For the group of seniors who have been to this point for three straight years, there is also the extra motivation of knowing this could be the end of their careres.
"We know every game could be it and we don't want it to be," Howland said. "We are not ready to be done."
After last year's loss these Tioga players knew they still had a chance to get back and play Randolph again. Now, they know this is their last chance.
"A year ago I was thinking about this year and playing Randolph again," Melella said. "Now it is dawning on me it could be our last game. We only have a maximum of two games left and we want to finish on top."
For the younger players they want to try and help the seniors go out with a title.
"I have played with these guys since I was little and it means a lot to try hard to help these guys get what they deserve," Manuel said.
The seniors want to try and finish their careers with the one thing they haven't gotten, a trip to the state final.
"It's been on our mind that any given game could be our last game we play," Jackson said. "We want to go out on top. We have been taught to be champions since pee-wee and we want to go out as champions. We know this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
"This is it, this is the end for a senior group that has been here for three years," Aiello said. "The seniors are playing very motivated."
Part of the motivation comes from watching Randolph win the state title last year and seeing them ranked number one all of this year.
"We are all sorts of fired up and ready to go," Melella said. "It's been in the back of our minds for a long time, since the preseason. Coach clipped a newspaper clipping from a paper near Randolph that was about why they are number one. A lot of the players put that in their lockers for motivation."
Tioga's players know that Randolph is good, but they feel they are as well.
"It's great motivatioin to see them number one," Howland said. "They are a good team, but so are we. We are in a good position now. We are really ready to work hard. We are working to get better and better."
"You hear a lot the third time is the charm and we hope it is," Jackson said. "We have got to be ready to go. Everyone understands what they need to do."
While Tioga knows how big this game is, they know they need to treat it like any other game.
"We have to treat it like just another nameless, faceless opponent," Vergason said. "They are a very good team, but we just have to focus on ourselves. We just have to keep taking it one game at a time."
All season long Tioga has treated this year like a job, cloking in and going to work, and they know they need to continue that.
"We feel like this is our time," Howland said. "Obviously there are nerves, but we will wake up tomorrow and get ready for another day at the office."
"We will get up and clock into work like we have for the last 11 weeks," Jackson said. "We know what we have to do."