SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — At the outset of a season, each team aspires to make its ensuing campaign a successful one. Such success is often measured by making it to the playoffs and, beyond that, unleashing a viable run toward a sectional championship.
By and large, entire seasonal results determine postseason entry, affording a variety of ways to qualify, including league or overall record or a point system based on strength of opponents. But football playoff qualification has morphed into something far more problematic as Section 9 now counts only league games as qualifying criteria. That renders a nine-game season into one where only a few games matter. Class C Division I contenders Liberty and Sullivan West are a case in point.
After James I. O’Neill wrested improbable last-second league wins from both schools, the two local rivals were faced with a do-or-die encounter that would provide the winner with a ticket to the playoffs and the loser to play out a far less meaningful season.
Liberty ousted Sullivan West a year ago in just such a late regular-season encounter, after knocking them out in a semifinal upset the year before. Now, the 4-1 Indians traveled to the 3-2 Bulldogs on October 6 in hopes of repeating that script. That these teams, with identical 1-1 league records, should be playing an elimination game on October 6 seemed unjust to say the least.
While most onlookers expected a tight, competitive game, few could have foreseen what was about to unfold, a deadlocked 14-14 game at the end of regulation and each team scoring a TD in the overtime. After Sullivan West’s Tom Mootz had rambled into the end zone from the 20-yard line on the first play in OT and Kitt Borowski had kicked the PAT to give Bulldogs a 21-14 edge, it was Liberty’s turn to try from the 20 to see if they could tie it to extend play or win it with a two-point conversion.
After completing a pass to Efrain Baez, the Liberty quarterback Marshon Williams handed the ball to junior Kenny Jaycox who promptly scored. Now Liberty trailed by a single point at 21-20 and then lined up for what looked like the extra point kick. Instead, holder Quinn Jackson stood up and threw a pass to Williams, who had slipped uncovered into the end zone to receive the two-point conversion pass. The ball sailed over his shoulder and what ensued was a cathartic scene of Sullivan West celebration in stark contrast to Liberty bereavement. The Bulldogs’ victory sets up an October 28 playoff semifinal against John S. Burke Catholic at Faller Field in Middletown slated for 4 p.m.
“We lost two games by a single point and we’re out,” said Liberty coach John Wilhelm, who took ownership for the gamble on the conversion. “It’s on me,” he said. “They were running the ball well at times tonight and we weren’t. I felt we couldn’t go score-for-score with them and that this was our best chance.”
Eldred, like Liberty, now finds itself outside looking in, after losing to Livingston Manor and falling to Chester 28-12 this past weekend. LMR and Chester will stage a rematch of last year’s Class D championship game to be played Dietz Stadium on November 4. Chester beat LMR 34-10 in 2010. Tri-Valley (1-5, 0-1 Class C) must beat Fallsburg and Millbrook to qualify for the playoffs to face O’Neill, who beat them 29-15 in a non-league tilt this past weekend.
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