ALEXANDER — Longtime Alexander head coach Tim Sawyer made no excuses this week about what happened in Week Two of the regular season when Avon blanked the Trojans 21-0 for their only setback of the spring.
“They were better than us, I’ll say that right now, Avon was flat out better than us that day,” Sawyer said. “But that was six or seven weeks ago.”
Fast forward to Saturday and the Trojans and Braves will meet once again, this time with a little more on the line.
In the shortened, condensed high school football season — featuring just four teams per sectional tournament — both Avon and Alexander have persevered and will get a chance to play for the Section V Class D championship on Saturday afternoon in a matchup of a pair of one-loss teams.
Kickoff is slated for 1 p.m. at Avon High School.
“We surely haven’t taken anything for granted,” Sawyer said. “Coach (Andy) Englert and I were talking last night that both of our teams have gotten here pretty healthy. We both missed one game but that wasn’t COVID-related. This is the seventh game that we’re playing this season and we’re thankful for that. Every game is special in a shortened season but I feel like we’re getting the most out of it.
It’s been great. Our whole team has pretty much been healthy all year, we haven’t had anything with COVID and it’s been nice playing almost every week and we’re all really happy to be here and we’re ready to play.”
Though the Week Two final score of a difference of 21 points may seem lopsided from the outside, the game was closer than the final might indicate. Avon scored on a pair of long plays in the opening half — one right before halftime — and didn’t score again until late in the fourth.
However, the Braves defense completely stifled the Trojans and held them to under 150 total yards, though Alexander controlled the ball for much of the game.
On the other side of the ball, Alexander forced four Avon turnovers but weren’t able to capitalize. For Trojans senior linebacker Devin Dean, the plan for this week is pretty simple.
“We’ve all just got to step up, play our 1/11th and minimize our mistakes and just win that game,” Dean said.
For Alexander — a team that has quietly flown under the radar in Class D this season — this will be its fifth consecutive Section V Class D championship game. The Trojans took home the block in 2016 and 2018, while in 2019 they dropped a heartbreaker to rival Notre Dame in the title contest.
For Avon, the Braves will be looking for the fifth sectional block in Coach Englert’s career, with the last coming in 2014 when it won the Class DD title; that capped a span of four blocks in seven years for the Braves.
“It felt that way and I actually kind of like being in that spot,” Sawyer said of being overlooked this season. “We lost early in the season to Avon in Week Two and after that it was almost like every game was an elimination game. We just kept working, kept grinding and we actually got healthier as the season went along. And (at the beginning of the year) our playbook wasn’t that deep because we had no 7-on-7s, no on-campus training during he offseason. We just stayed the course and implemented something every week.”
Since the loss to Avon, Alexander has been on a roll the rest of the way, specifically with the always-tough defense. Over the last four games, the Trojans have allowed just a total of 19 points, including just seven last week in the semifinals to an Oakfield-Alabama/Elba team that came in averaging nearly 50 points per game.
In all, Alexander is allowing just 7.5 points per game this season behind longtime defensive coordinator Matt McCracken, who has this defense primed and ready to go game in and game out, year in and year out.
“We’ve got good coaches that are working with us and we’ve got kids that go in and work hard year in and year out,” Dean said.
“He works all week to put a game-plan together, he shows us on Monday and we work on it through the week and just execute it on game day,” linebacker and quarterback Nick Kramer added of Coach McCracken.
Dean has been the leader of this balanced defensive attack with 51 total tackles this season, while Jake Laney has added 37 stops and Kramer has come in with 35 tackles.
Connor Hollands, Gavin Smith-Crandall, Brayden Woods and Jay Morrison have also put together impressive seasons on the defensive side of the ball for a coaching staff that has been together for quite some time.
“He’s definitely very prepared and our program uses a lot of film study and they understand it,” Sawyer said of McCracken. “They actually spend a lot of time on their own studying film. We maximize the use of film and we always do our defensive install early in the week with four or five points of emphasis that we really focus on. And by the night before the game these guys know it like the back of their hand. Coach has them prepared and our kids enjoy the physicality of defense and the challenge of it.
“Everybody’s got their job and each coach has their duties of preparing their kids and somehow in this abbreviated season and the short weeks we’ve been able to get it done this year,” Sawyer added.
This week Alexander will get an Avon team that may be playing with a backup quarterback in sophomore Rich Brice but also boasts a massive and talented offensive line and one of the better running backs around in Thomas Welch.
Welch has rushed for 911 yards and nine touchdowns on just 133 carries but he has absolutely gone off in the last four weeks, including 189 yards and a score last week in a 16-8 win over Canisteo-Greenwood in the semifinal. Welch is averaging nearly seven yards per carry.
In the first game Welch ran for 93 yards against Alexander but 52 of that came on one TD run; that was Welch’s lowest rushing output of the season.
With junior QB Andrew Rowland hurt, Brice has come in and gone 15-of-31 through the air for 158 yards but with four interceptions against just one TD. However, all four of those picks came in the loss to O-A/Elba as last week he was excellent, going 9-of-13 for 74 yards and a score against the Redskins.
“Going in we’re going to face a good Alexander team and Coach Sawyer does a great job with them,” Avon head coach Andy Englert said. “We played them earlier this season and if you watch on film they got much better through the course of the year. I’m just happy for both programs to be able to play on the last day of football in May.”
And while the Alexander defense has gotten top billing, the Avon defense has been no pushover. On the year the Braves are surrendering just 12.5 per game, but take out the 37 they gave up in the loss to the Aggies and that drops to just 8.8.
While the Alexander offense has scuffled at times this season, the running attack has seemingly gotten better each time out.
Woods leads the team with 628 yards on the ground on 86 carries, while Kramer has carried 81 times for 513 yards.
For Kramer, he has been solid in his first season under center going 27-of-66 for 376 yards, with the speedy Morrison being his leading receiver with 13 grabs for 235 yards.
This week, Sawyer thinks that his team just has to do what it did last week against O-A/Elba in order to be successful.
“Here and now we need to convert, we need to move the chains, possess the ball, grind it out,” Coach Sawyer said. “I feel like our offensive line has come a long way since that game, our running game has gotten better. We can’t survive turning it over three or four times, usually. We need to convert, get first downs and get sevens instead of threes inside the red zone this week and let our defense do what they do.”
If they need those three, Alexander is also in good hands. Last week kicker Eric Cline connected on all three of his field goals in the win over the Aggies, while he is credited with just one missed kick all year, which came on a botched snap.
It’s a full team effort for 48 minutes every game.
“We just show up and work hard and everybody does their 1/11th on the team and it just works out,” Kramer said. “When we get down to the 10 we’ve just got to punch it in on offense and get the six instead of the three. Our kicker is good for the three but the six would be that much better.”
Unlike last week’s semifinal, Saturday will see two programs that have been here before and two programs who are expecting to win every time they step between the lines.
In many ways, they are very similar, and at no point should anyone underestimate either one.
“You’re right, we’ve been flying under the radar,” Sawyer said. “We’re not too flashy, we don’t put a ton of points up, but we’re tough, we’re prepared, we’re gritty and we seem to do enough score one more point than the other team.”