CLINTONVILLE — Saranac Lake went into this season as the three-time defending Section VII Class C champion, but it had lost the majority of its starters and faced questions at quarterback.
But players filled new roles all season and sophomore quarterback Tristan Fitzgerald proved clutch, leading a scoring drive in the final minutes of Saturday’s Class C final for a 30-28 victory over Saranac.
“For the fourth year in a row, it feels great,” senior Dylan Gunther said after the game at AuSable Valley. “And I didn’t want to be a part of a team that wasn’t going to get the Class C championship, so it feels wonderful.”
The Red Storm (5-4), who were seeded first in Section VII, move on to meet Section X champion Ogdensburg Free Academy Friday in Massena.
Although Saranac Lake trailed for much of the game, it took a 24-21 lead into the fourth quarter thanks to Dustin Fischer’s 28-yard interception return for a touchdown early in the third.
But No. 2 seed Saranac fought back, putting together a short drive that ended with a 1-yard scoring run by John Maye with 4:23 left in the game. Paul Herrera’s PAT gave the Chiefs a 28-24 edge.
The Red Storm got the ball back on their own 31-yard line and muscled their way to Saranac’s 25, picking up four first downs along the way. Then Fitzgerald threw a perfect pass to Gunther on the left sideline, and Gunther sped to the end zone.
“I tried to sell it as best I could. We tried to fake the outside zone,” Gunther said. “I tried to get open, and our quarterback threw a great ball. It was wide open. It put us on top.”
The kick missed, and Saranac Lake clung to a 30-28 lead with 1:03 on the clock.
Gunther came up huge again, picking off a Saranac pass to seal the victory.
“I mean, what opportune plays at exactly the right time,” Saranac Lake coach Eric Bennett said, referring to the game’s two interceptions. “We worked very hard on getting our drops and high point of the ball because the last time we played them, they made some huge plays downfield in the passing game.”
Gunther totaled 78 rushing yards and a touchdown to go along with his 85 receiving yards on five catches. Fitzgerald was 9-for-13 for 104 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran for 36 yards — 15 of those on the game-winning drive.
Trent Fitzgerald ran for a team-high 86 yards.
Running back John Maye led Saranac (4-5) to a 21-10 first-half advantage. Maye had touchdowns of three and 35 yards in the second quarter to put the Chiefs in front 14-7, and he added a 12-yard scoring run to make it 21-10 after Saranac Lake’s Ty Marmion kicked a 22-yard field goal.
Maye took 33 of the Chiefs’ 43 carries and rushed 219 yards, putting him over the 1,000-yard mark for the season. Ethan Goslin ran 64 yards and completed one pass to Ryan Kneussle.
Gunther ran 35 yards down the sideline for a Saranac Lake touchdown in the first quarter, and Dan Strack’s touchdown catch put the Red Storm within 11 points 43 seconds before halftime.
The Red Storm lost to the Chiefs in a regular-season matchup two weeks ago, and then they dropped a crossover game. Bennett said they stayed relaxed and didn’t panic despite trailing late in Saturday’s game.
“We came into this game on a two-game losing streak. We’d been behind the last two games,” Gunther said. “And we tried to battle as much as we could and not look at the scoreboard much. Tried to just play as a 0-0 game and tried to take the lead every possession we got.
“And when we looked up at that scoreboard at the end of the game, we had the lead.”
Saranac Lake managed that lead even though two-way standout Lance Ackerson was sidelined with an injury.
“Anytime you lose a first-team (All-Star) outside linebacker, first-team fullback and your captain, that’s a big hole to fill. But to our kids’ credit — our t-shirts even said at the beginning of the year, ‘Next man in,’” Bennett said. “For instance, Trent Fitzgerald ran the ball tremendously from that position (Saturday).
“So just proud of our kids. They work hard. They’re resilient, and I think they’re growing up a lot and it’s great to see.”
Saranac Lake 30, Saranac 28
Saranac 7 14 0 7 — 28
Saranac Lake 7 9 8 6 — 30
SL- Gunther 35 run (Marmion kick), 8:54.
Sar- Maye 3 run (Herrera kick), 1:19.
Sar- Maye 35 run (Herrera kick), 4:17.
SL- Marmion 22 field goal, 7:57.
Sar- Maye 12 run (Herrera kick), 10:03.
SL- Strack 14 pass from Tri. Fitzgerald (kick blocked), 11:17.
SL- Fischer 28 interception return (Gunther run), 3:50.
Sar- Maye 1 run (Herrera kick), 7:37.
SL- Gunther 25 pass from Tri. Fitzgerald (kick missed), 10:57.
Sar- Maye 33-219, 4 TD; Goslin 8-64; Church 2-5. Totals: 43-288, 4 TD.
SL- Tre. Fitzgerald 13-86; Gunther 8-78, TD; Tri. Fitzgerald 12-36; Fischer 1-(-2); Marmion 1-(-6). Totals: 35-192, TD.
Sar- Goslin 1-5-2-4.
SL- Tri. Fitzgerald 9-13-0-104, 2 TD.
Sar- Kneussle 1-4.
SL- Gunther 5-85, TD; Strack 2-14, TD; Marmion 1-9; Fischer 1-(-4).
SL- Fischer, Gunther.
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