It was the one instance in which the Portville football team’s superiority actually might have hurt it.
Entering their Section 6 Class C semifinal with Wilson, the Panthers essentially hadn’t been a part of any close games. Their six wins on the field came by an average of 29 points and only one was decided by fewer than three scores. Their lone loss was the reverse outcome, a 40-8 setback to powerhouse Southwestern.
So this, a game that was tight from the get-go and came down to the final seconds, was new for coach Josh Brooks’ team, and that lack of exposure to pressure situations may have played a role in a fantastic season coming to a painful end.
A week ago last night, the Panthers took a 21-14 lead on an 18-yard TD pass from Hunter Griffin to Dalton Tobola with four minutes remaining in the third quarter and maintained it until just 2:15 remained. That’s when an impressive upset victory instead faded into a bitter defeat.
After taking over at its own 23, Wilson converted a 4th-and-6 from the 27 with under two minutes left. It then took advantage of a Portville miscue to hit on a go-ahead 66-yard touchdown pass with 1:22 remaining and picked off the Panthers’ last-ditch effort to pull out a 26-21 win.
In the moment, it was nothing short of a punch to the stomach. That’s how narrow the difference was between coming home and continuing the program’s most impressive campaign in close to a decade.
But even in a loss, there was, again, something positive to pull from their performance.
“We’re disappointed,” Brooks admitted. “We blew a coverage late in the fourth quarter inside two minutes. (But it’s) no one’s fault; it’s a team game. We made plenty of mistakes that could have sealed the game — a couple of things didn’t go our way.
“But our kids played super hard. We held them to 29 yards rushing, only 159 yards total, and that last play was 66 yards. So they were under 100 yards for the game until that last play.”
He acknowledged, though: “We were the better team; we let it slip away.”
For Portville, there were two ways of viewing the result.
Yes, it was a missed opportunity. If it had won, Brooks’ team would have earned a rematch with Southwestern for the Section 6 Class C title, being played today at the Buffalo Bills’ New Era Field. But there was also this: the Panthers, after handling Akron 26-7 in the quarterfinals, took the North’s No. 1 seed down to the very end on the road.
And, that in itself, was a notable accomplishment.
“I talked to the kids after the game, and I was not mad that we lost,” Brooks said. “No one picked us to go 6-1 (in the regular season), no one picked us to have a home playoff game. No one picked us to win a home playoff game and no one expected us to be in the game against Wilson.
“We knew they were a good team and were going to be prepared for us, but we thought we could win. We gave them everything we had, we took them down to the wire. You look at our record, we finished the year 7-2 and those two losses we had — as of November 8, neither of those teams (Southwestern and Wilson, both 9-0, who are playing for the C title) have lost a game all year, so I couldn’t be more proud of the kids.”
In the end, Portville won its first true sectional playoff game since 2012 and had its first season of at least six wins and two or fewer losses since 2010. That was part of a 180-like turnaround for New York Big 30 teams this fall.
A YEAR after only three non-automatic qualifiers advanced to the postseason, NY not only sent nine teams to the playoffs (including two lower-seeded automatics), but an amazing seven to the semifinals — Portville, Olean, Pioneer, Bolivar-Richburg, Franklinville/Ellicottville, Salamanca and Randolph.
By that measure, it was the most successful season for the New York side of the Big 30 border in over 10 years. And though F/E is the only team left standing, the area has plenty of which to be proud.
That includes Portville, which figured to be much better in 2019 after returning a whopping 26 letterwinners, including Big 30 all-star running back Jayden Lassiter, who ripped off over 1,100 yards this season, but might have even exceeded expectations.
“We set a goal the first day of practice, (and) the goal we came up with was to host a home playoff game,” Brooks said, “meaning we needed to finish in the top two of our league. The kids aren’t stupid — they look at the schedule, they understand what games they’ve got a really good chance in, what games are going to be tough.
“The C South schedule is no joke. We knew we’d have to play well to do that. After the regular season’s over, 6-1, to get that home playoff game … it was a great feeling.”