NEWBURGH – Newburgh Free Academy football coach Bill Bianco was asked if he had a “Hoosiers” movie speech ready for his team when the Goldbacks step into the cavernous JMA Wireless Dome on the campus of Syracuse University on Sunday.
“If you got one for me, just send it,’’ he laughed.
No tape measure is needed to demystify the 100-yard field, nor the gravity of the moment: Newburgh is vying for its first state title, having come up short in 2011 and 2014.
At 3 p.m., the Goldbacks (10-2) take on Section 6 champion Buffalo Bennett (6-6) for the Class AA title. Bennett is ranked No. 3 in the state and Newburgh is No. 4, the top two teams in the New York State Public High School Athletic Association.
The path to the state finals has not been easy for Newburgh: Both Carmel (No. 4 overall that week) and Christian Brothers Academy of Albany (No. 3 at the time) were the top NYSPHSAA schools in the state poll when the Goldbacks prevailed. Now Bennett holds that highest rank.
State semifinal:Newburgh tops Albany CBA, reaches Class AA state final
“We told (the players) that once you get to a certain level into the state playoffs there are no really ‘gimme’ games,’’ Bianco said. “Obviously, the talent on each of those teams Is usually indicative of the players on those teams. And just being honest, the coaching staffs that are usually in these games have been doing it for a while.
“You can't really totally prepare for (this level of play) until you get there, but we thought we did we could as far as scheduling and just the way we talk about what was coming,’’ he added.
Star receiver Deondre Johnson said it is the commitment of his team that has made the difference this season for the two-time defending Section 9 champion Goldbacks.
“This year we just have a lot of special kids,’’ said Johnson, who is headed to Rutgers. “This year (we have) a lot of young, experienced kids who are willing to learn and willing to (run through a) wall for the team.’’
Newburgh has rushed for 2,251 yards and 34 touchdowns. Tajir Walker leads the way with 981 yards and 14 touchdowns on 152 carries. Elijah Bevier, a receiver, leads with 9.8 yards per carry, running 25 times for 244 yards. Jayden Sanchez has 34 runs for 266 yards and two scores.
Mason Hoover runs the offense. He has completed 90 of 151 throws for 1,970 yards and 17 touchdowns, eight of which have gone to the 6-foot-8 Johnson. Bevier has 39 grabs for 745 yards.
Defensively, the solo tackle leaders are Fabian Rhoden (46, eight for lost yardage), Darryl Jackson (46, including three sacks), Jashon Thomas (46), Carl Shaw (45) and Xavier Sill (33).
Don’t be fooled
Bennett’s record is .500 but that’s because the Tigers had to forfeit four early season contests due to a player ineligibility, per media reports. The Tigers have beaten Section 5’s McQuaid Jesuit, 20-14, and Section 3’s Cicero-North Syracuse, 34-7, in two state playoff contests.
Junior wide receiver Ja’meer Thomas has 21 touchdowns and is averaging 68 yards per game. Fellow receiver Jayden Lewis, a senior, has 18 TDs and averages 49 yards per game.
The Bennett tackle leaders are senior Xzavier Goodman and Rashard Perry, who average 10 and nine tackles per contest.
“They're very athletic and strong,’’ Bianco said, summing up both the offense and defense for Bennett, which has a tackle bound for Syracuse.
Without revealing his observation, Bianco believes his team can benefit from some “disadvantages for them.’’
“It still comes down to blocking, tackling and taking care of the football,’’ he said.
Newburgh was 3-12 in state tournament action before beating Section 1’s Carmel and Section 2’s Christian Brothers Academy of Albany in this year’s tournament. … Newburgh lost to Orchard Park, 21-13, in 2011’s final and bowed to Jamestown, 41-20, in the 2014 final. … Section 9 Class AA teams are 0-6 in the finals since 2006. NFA was the last to compete, in 2014. Monroe-Woodbury owns the lone Class AA title, beating Webster Thomas, 32-10, in 2005. … Bennett draws players from four high schools, including Olmsted, Middle Early College and East. … The Tigers were 11-2 in 2021, falling to Carmel, 42-12, in the state final.
This article originally appeared on Times Herald-Record: Newburgh Free Academy faces Bennett for NY state football title