Storm, ’Jacks lay it on the line

SARANAC LAKE – It’s Friday Night Lights, North Country Super Bowls, battles with old nemeses and trips to the state playoffs on the line all rolled into one.

Tonight, the Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake football teams will face familiar foes in regional playoff action as they hope to see their seasons continue.

The Section X Lumberjacks will travel to AuSable Valley to play Moriah to see who will reign supreme among area Class D teams. At the same time, the Red Storm head to Massena to tangle with Ogdensburg in a matchup of sectional Class C champions.

Both games are being played at neutral fields and begin at 7 p.m.

Saranac Lake and Ogdensburg reached the Section VII/X Class C championship by winning thrilling games a week ago that were both decided by two points. The Blue Devils upended Potsdam, which was undefeated, 28-26 in overtime, while Dylan Gunther hauled in a 25-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tristin Fitzgerald with 1:03 left in the game to lift the Red Storm to a 30-28 victory over Saranac Central.

“Up-and-down” have been the words used by Saranac Lake head coach Eric Bennett to characterize his team’s season. One thing is for sure, though: the 5-4 Red Storm have improved immensely since they first stepped on the field this fall.

“In our earlier losses, I think we were trying to find out who we were,” Bennett said. “On some level, we’ve kind of come full circle since the start of the season. The kids have been playing good football, making plays and digging in.”

Both teams are battle tested. Saranac Lake trailed at times in each of the four games it won, not including a forfeit win over Plattsburgh. Ogdensburg, which has an 8-1 record, clinched five of its wins on the final possession of the game.

“Every game we’ve played this year has been a tough one,” Bennett said. “Literally, our easiest game was Plattsburgh. Last week, our kids kept their composure in the midst of a very tough game against a very tough opponent. We’ll have to do that again.”

Bennett and his staff have been preparing for a Blue Devils squad with a “multidimensional offense” and has numerous weapons. Six players have scored five or more touchdowns for Ogdensburg, which is the 10th-ranked Class C in the state. Quarterback Josh Liebstein has rushed for nine scores and has thrown 14 touchdown passes. He has completed 49-of-73 passing attempts for 626 yards and has been intercepted just three times.

Fullback Jordan McCormick is the team’s top rusher with 789 yards and eight touchdowns on 105 carries. Flanker Nick Sweeney leads the Blue Devils receivers with nine touchdown catches.

After playing two Section X crossover games, Tupper Lake finally gets its opportunity to enter the playoff picture in tonight’s matchup against Moriah. The Lumberjacks bring a 4-5 record into the game against the 5-4 Vikings.

“Everything has been electric and fun during practice this week,” Tupper Lake head coach Dennis Klossner said. “The kids are excited to be in the position they are in. We’ve had some pretty good games against Moriah, and even though they’ve come out on the better end recently, they’ve all been close.”

Klossner said on offense the ‘Jacks are going to have to find success throwing the football. And on defense, they will need to slow down a Vikings offense that has turned from a traditional bang it up the middle running game to a two-pronged attack that features the passing of senior quarterback Cole Gaddor.

“They are still a Don Tesar coached grind-it-out team, but they can also make a big play at any time,” Klossner said. “They’ve been throwing the football a lot more this season. We need to keep the ball out of their hands as much as possible.”

Tupper Lake is led on offense by senior quarterback Morgan Stevens, who has piled up more than 1,400 passing yards with throws to a host of receivers. Seniors Mitch Keniston, Cody LaPierre and Devin Larson are Tupper Lake’s top pass catchers, and sophomore Brasen LaVassaur has been another effective receiver coming out of the backfield.

The Lumberjacks ground game has been fueled by senior tailback Jeremy Roussel, who enters tonight’s contest with 1,021 yards rushing. During last week’s 21-13 setback to Massena, Roussel gained 121 yards on 27 carries to become the ‘Jacks first 1,000-plus yard running back since 2007.

Senior C.J. Raymond and junior Troy Welch provide Moriah with a balanced running game, and Raymond is also a dangerous receiver.

The Vikings reached tonight’s regional playoff matchup with a down-to-the-wire 6-0 win over Ticonderoga in a game that saw their defense make a goal line stand in the closing seconds to secure the victory. Moriah enters action as New York’s 20th-ranked Class D team.