Not quite two months ago, the Randolph Cardinals trudged to the locker room at Maple Grove Junior-Senior High School, trailing the Red Dragons, 27-0, at halftime.
Owners of one Section 6 Class D loss already, the perennial power was on the brink of having its season headed south and it was barely past Labor Day.
But a funny thing happened to the Cardinals that night on the Dutch Hollow Road.
Jordan Dowiasz leads Randolph in rushing with 1,289 yards on 124 carries.
P-J photo by Scott Kindberg
Despite their 27-14 loss to their arch-rival, they learned they could play.
"All of a sudden,'' Coach Pat Slater said, "they gained a little confidence and all of a sudden mistakes became minimized. We didn't turn the ball over as much, we didn't have as many penalties, we started tackling better and it's all just progressed.''
And just like the little engine that could, the youthful team - winners of seven straight and ranked No. 4 in the state - has taken its "I-think-I-can, I think-I-can'' attitude all the way to today's Far West Regional against second-ranked Avon of Section 5. Kickoff is at 5 p.m. at All-High Stadium in Buffalo.
The winner advances to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association semifinal next Friday at 5 p.m. at Sahlen's Stadium in Rochester.
Slater, who has 211 career victories, eight sectional titles and two state championships (2005 and 2009), isn't surprised by his team's turnaround.
"That's your goal, isn't it?,'' he said. "That's what we were after. We thought we could (get this far). We thought if we can survive the first three games, be in the games, and our kids gain some experience and confidence, they would come along, and they did.''
In a big, big way.
No bigger than in last week's Section 6 championship game at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Facing Maple Grove, the state's top-ranked team, again, the Cardinals pitched a shutout and senior Jordan Dowiasz rushed for 214 yards and a pair of long touchdown runs on their way to a dominant 21-0 victory. It was the first shutout Maple Grove had absorbed since 2004.
September seemed a distant memory.
"That was outstanding,'' Slater said. "The kids worked hard all (last) week, Brent Brown (the defensive coordinator) put it together, we worked on it a lot and it showed. When (Maple Grove) went into formations, our kids adjusted and they were ready to play.''
Not surprisingly, the Cardinals will have to be ready again today.
Avon (9-1), which advanced to the Far West Regional by pounding Batavia Notre Dame, 43-7, in the Section 5 title game for their seventh straight win, can put up big numbers, both through the air and on the ground.
Senior quarterback T.J. Crye has completed 71-of-163 passes for 1,242 yards and 16 touchdowns. He has been intercepted six times. His favorite target is junior John Ambroselli, who has 20 receptions for 245 yards and six touchdowns. Three other receivers have at least 11 catches.
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Crye is also the team's leading rusher with 716 yards on 101 carries and 10 touchdowns. Senior Jake Martinez has 623 yards on the ground and 12 touchdowns, and junior Dan Welch has 676 yards and seven TDs.
"They can score in a hurry,'' Slater said. "The quarterback has a good arm and he's pretty accurate. They throw the ball, they line up on the line and wing it all over. They're wide open from the spread offense and they've got a big line that's solid and a couple of good runners.''
It sounds as if the longtime coach was describing his own team.
Dowiasz leads the Cardinals with 1,289 yards rushing on 124 carries (10.4 average) and has scored 24 touchdowns; junior Jared Pitchford has 510 yards, while junior Chris Doubek has 317. Junior quarterback Mitchell Maycock has completed 37-of-71 passes for 663 yards and 10 touchowns, six of them to senior Nate Beaver (18 catches, 369 yards).
But, as anyone who has followed Randolph during Slater's tenure knows, the success starts up front. Manning the offensive line are sophomore Michael Bowers, junior Cody Oldro, senior Ryan Styles, senior Jimmy Carr and junior Patrick Kibbe.
"Now they've been playing,'' Slater said. "They've learned, they've got their assignments down and they've got helmets where they're supposed to be. That's the trick.''
Defensively, Oldro is Randolph's leader (82 tackles, 12 assists, three fumble recoveries, two sacks), and senior Dylan Faust and junior Lucas Brown have seven and 3 sacks respectively, but the Cardinals' most impressive statistic in the last seven games is their stinginess. In the last 30 quarters - the last seven games plus the second half of the first Maple Grove game - the Cardinals have yielded 46 points.