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Oct. 22, 2016 was a transformative day for the Skaneateles football program.

That day, in rainy, muddy, freezing and overall miserable conditions at Cazenovia High School, the Lakers from Skaneateles were trounced by the hometown Lakers from Cazenovia, 51-0, in the section quarterfinals. 

While Cazenovia went on to win the section, a young Skaneateles team went home. In the following days, weeks and months, players were forced to re-evaluate their commitment to being great. That matchup against Cazenovia had shown how large the gap was from making sectionals to being able to win it.

"If there's been a gatekeeper in Class B, it's been Caz," Skaneateles coach Joe Sindoni said. "I think they've been in this (sectional title) game for seven years in a row. Certainly the game we had against them two years ago made us who we are with the way we reacted to that, because it was a failure."

Redemption against Cazenovia would have to wait, however. Skaneateles dropped down to Class C in 2017, and equipped with a high-scoring offense and opportunistic defense, the Lakers cruised through the Section III, Class C tournament, and then pulled off some thrilling wins on their way to the state title.

Increased enrollment pushed Skaneateles back up to Class B this season, but not much has changed for the Lakers. Skaneateles rolled to a perfect regular season and earned the No. 1 seed in the tournament. Wins over Chittenango and Vernon-Verona-Sherrill now have Skaneateles primed for a rematch two years in the making.

This time, lessons have been learned.

"The program has come a pretty long way and I think everyone can see it," senior tailback and linebacker Areh Boni said. "It all stemmed from that rainy, muddy game where we got destroyed. After that game, we all sat down and realized we had a lot of work to do. It was kind of a wake-up call."

Added receiver Nick Wamp, "That game is why we are here. That's really the cornerstone of it."

Sindoni recalled a story he's heard about famed Duke men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski about overcoming a massive loss, and applied it to how Skaneateles approached everything after that loss to Cazenovia. 

"Early in his career at Duke, they got blown out by 40 and they're sitting there with the coaches after and one of the coaches raised his drink and said, 'Here's to forgetting tonight,' and Krzyzewski says, 'No, no ... here's to never forgetting tonight,'" Sindoni said. "That's how these kids have viewed that game against Cazenovia. We know what that feels like, we saw they were the best in the section that year, and we know where we want to be.

"They put their sights on that and I think that has motivated them. Cazenovia is the team to beat year-in and year-out in this class. Whether they beat us or not, I think the kids are excited about this opportunity to play them."

Since that defeat, Skaneateles has won 15 straight games — the sixth-longest streak in all of New York state — and 21 of its last 22, thanks in large part to a visit to Cazenovia two years ago. 

Here's other things to look for in the Section III, Class B championship:

IN THE TRENCHES

While Skaneateles returned most of its skill position players from the state title-winning team, the same could not be said along both the offensive and defensive lines.

A concern with inexperience has shifted to confidence in the group's reliability. As players have stepped into new roles and performed, the Lakers' offense has continued to hum.

"That's been I think our most improved unit from Week 1 to now for sure," Sindoni said. "They have gelled into a good unit. The thing about an offensive line is it's kind of like a referee — if you don't know they're on the field, they probably did their job. The hole is open when it needs to be open, the time is there when we need to protect. It's not perfect and never is at this level, but I've been very pleased with how they've played given the confusing situations teams have tried to put them in."

Boni, along with quarterback Patrick Hackler, have benefited plenty from the offensive line doing its job. He and Wamp mentioned Oliver Weir, Jack Carlile and Josh McIntyre as having filled some voids, as well as returners Jimmy Liberatore and Nate Squires continuing strong play.

"The linemen don't get a lot of credit," Wamp said. "They work their butt off every week. They block so Hack can get the ball off, block for us to run. They've taken on great leadership roles for us this year."

NOT PHASED BY BRIGHT LIGHTS

Don't expect Skaneateles, or Cazenovia for that matter, to be nervous playing on Syracuse's grand stage at the Carrier Dome.

Skaneateles played twice at the Dome last year, handily defeating General Brown for the section title before returning three weeks later to beat Holy Trinity for the state title.

Meanwhile, Cazenovia has played for the section title at the Dome every year since 2012.

"There is some familiarity that we've played here a couple times and we've had some success," Sindoni said, "but it's still a distraction. How do you go from playing on a regular, Class B-sized field to all of a sudden playing at the Carrier Dome? It makes the game feel bigger, which is great but it adds all those anxiety elements. I think our experience should help us minimize the distraction."

What's most important, perhaps, is that Skaneateles doesn't take its opponent lightly. In the week of preparation leading up to the game, Skaneateles' coaching staff has preached that the team cannot just show up and expect to win.

Against a well-coached, well-disciplined team from Cazenovia, Skaneateles will have to earn it.

"It's something that we stress all the time, but I think it's never been more true with an opponent than these guys," Sindoni said. "They will play right to the whistle, do exactly what they need to do technique-wise, and you can see that their guys are well-coached. As teams try to adjust to them, you see their coaches are a step ahead.

"Not only do we have to show up and be physical and be all these other things, but we've got to be smart and show up educated. We have to show up knowing the guys across from us."

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Sports writer Justin Ritzel can be reached at 282-2257 or at justin.ritzel@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @CitizenRitz.

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