ENDICOTT — Three yards.
The Lakers had two chances to deny the Cardinals three yards. After failing to on the first try, Skaneateles stood firm on the second.
The defensive stand was the difference between playing another week and going home for the winter.
Skaneateles football denied Newark Valley on a two-point conversion on the final play of the game to seal a 42-41 win Saturday in the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class C regional at Ty Cobb Stadium at Union-Endicott High School. The victory secures the Lakers a spot in the state semifinals.
Newark Valley, the Section IV champion, entered the game as the defending Class C champions and was riding a 23-game winning streak.
The Lakers' celebration at the final horn was nearly a crushing heartbreak. Skaneateles led by 14 points with under seven minutes to play, but the Cardinals cut the Lakers' lead to 42-35 with 6:23 remaining and, after scoring a touchdown in the final second to cut the difference to a single point, had a chance to steal the win on a two-point conversion with less than a second remaining.
"We were first hoping they weren't going to come out in some crazy formation we hadn't seen. They did that to us once earlier," Skaneateles coach Joe Sindoni said. "We had a good idea of what they were going to run and I think we stopped them by a matter of inches. That's what this game comes down to sometimes. It was a six-inch difference between us winning and us losing."
Skaneateles' final drive took up over three minutes of clock and advanced all the way to Newark Valley's 7-yard line. The Lakers ran three fruitless plays before electing a field-goal try to go ahead by 10 with three minutes to play.
Kicker Cross Bianchi's kick was blocked, however, to leave the Cardinals one score from tying the game. Fortunately for the Lakers, the missed try didn't come back to bite them.
"That's a kick Cross normally makes, but it was at a low trajectory," Sindoni said. "It is what it is."
Lakers quarterback Patrick Hackler finished 16-of-25 for 231 yards and five touchdowns, while running for 88 yards on 10 carries. Bianchi was Hackler's go-to target, racking up 10 receptions, 153 yards and three touchdowns. Nick Wamp tallied two touchdowns — one on a 36-yard reception and the other a 72-yard sweep. He totaled thee receptions for 59 yards and two carries for 80 yards. Running back Areh Boni finished with 152 yards on 16 attempts and Tommy Scherrer recorded an 8-yard touchdown catch.
With his five-touchdown game, Hackler set the NYSPHSAA record for passing touchdowns in a single-season with 46. The previous record was 45, set by Christian Brothers Academy's Greg Paulus in 2002. Paulus is New York's all-time leader in career passing touchdowns.
While Skaneateles led by as much as 14 in the fourth quarter, the Lakers had to dig out of that same margin in the first quarter. The Cardinals scored twice in the opening nine minutes to go ahead 14-0 as Skaneateles' offense was still getting its footing.
On fourth-and-2 from their own 28-yard line, the Lakers elected to go for it, and Hackler managed to pick up the first down with his legs. Hackler later found Wamp on a 36-yard pass to the end zone to put Skaneateles on the board.
"Just knowing what we've been able to do up to this point and the guys we've got doing it, I have confidence in putting the ball in Hackler's hands and saying, 'I need two yards ... figure it out,'" Sindoni said. "He made some incredible plays, and the throw to Nick was all improvisation. I'd love to take credit for any of that, but that was all the two of them."
Trailing 14-7 with less than a minute in the first quarter, Newark Valley fumbled on first down and the recovery was made by the Lakers' Jimmy Liberatore at the Cardinals' 33-yard line. Two plays later, Hackler found Bianchi for a touchdown and the Lakers' 14th point in 30 seconds to tie the game.
Both teams scored once more to head into halftime tied at 21-21, but Skaneateles delivered two body blows in the third quarter to take a 35-28 lead heading into the final frame.
"We just said to stick to our game plan,"Hackler said. "'We'll take what the defense gives us' is what coach always says and that's kind of what they did. If they gave us the run up the middle, I took it. If they gave Areh (space), we'll ground and pound all game. It was really just playing our game."
After Hackler's record-setting pass to Scherrer in the corner of the end zone with 9:07 remaining, the Lakers looked well on their way to a cruising win over the run-dependent Cardinals.
But Newark Valley responded with a touchdown of its own less than three minutes later to cut Skaneateles' edge to one touchdown and then nearly pulled off a stunner following Bianchi's kick.
The swing of emotions in the final seconds settled on relief.
"It's amazing. I was really anxious this game and I missed some throws, but it was a great team effort," Hackler said. "It's great to be a part of it. I'm so happy for this team, these coaches and it really was just an amazing game."
While the defensive stop was the play of the game, the performance of the game was by the record-setting Hackler. Sindoni joked that he failed to mention the accomplishment to his junior quarterback to keep Hackler focused on the task at hand.
"I haven't even told him yet. I don't want him to know," Sindoni said. "Paulus called me earlier in the week and said to run the ball. He said, 'I hope you win but run the ball this week.' We'll have a conversation later I'm sure."
Hackler couldn't have reached the milestone without his deep group of receivers, where a different player steps up each week. In that revolving door, this time it was Bianchi's turn to take advantage.
"We knew they were playing zone today, so we were just trying to find an opening," Bianchi said. "That's what really helped us was lurking and finding those openings. (Hackler) is a great quarterback."
Skaneateles (11-1) returns to Ty Cobb Stadium for the state semifinal next Saturday to take on Section VI's champion, Cleveland Hill.