BATAVIA — After returning to the 11-man game with a vengeance, the Oakfield-Alabama/Elba Aggies entered this past spring’s Section V Football playoffs as the favorite in Class D.

The Aggies carried with them into the abbreviated postseason a 5-1 regular season mark, the No. 1 seed and a boatload of talent that made them appear as a shoo-in to take home the coveted block of wood. However, coming off of two straight 8-man football championships, the Aggies failed to measure up to the success they had found each of the previous two seasons at the 8-man level, dropping an opening round sectional matchup to eventual runner-up Alexander, 9-7, at Van Detta Stadium.

The loss ended O-A/E’s season short of the title game for the first time since the Aggies transitioned to 8-man football following the 2017-18 season. The heartbreaking defeat also set the stage for eventual Class D champion, the Avon Braves, to claim their program’s fifth sectional championship under longtime head coach Andy Englert.

This weekend, things have come near full circle, as top-seeded O-A/E returns to the site of its only postseason defeat in the past three seasons, hoping to exorcise its demons while going up against the defending champion Braves in the Class D title game on Friday night at 7 p.m in Batavia.

“We feel like we’re prepared for the type of battle we’re going to see on Friday,“ said Winter. “It’s going to take everything that we’ve got. And we know it.”

It’s been a relatively smooth ride for O-A/E on its way to 10 straight victories and a second consecutive No. 1 seed this fall, as the Aggies have outscored their opponents a whopping 492-96, including seven wins of over 30 points or more. With a chip on their shoulder after the way the spring season ended, the Aggies haven’t slowed down for any team. Perhaps except for Bolivar-Richburg, which battled O-A/E to a 14-13 final in Week 7.

“They’re a good, physical team with a lot of speed,“ said Englert about the challenges the Aggies present. “It should be another great night of small school football.”

Over the past half-decade, through a coaching change from longtime HC Mike Cintorino to now-head coach Tyler Winter, there aren’t many teams that have been able to solve O-A/E’s vaunted attack. And defending champ Avon is not among those that have had any luck with the Aggies.

In two meetings over the past two regular seasons, O-A/E has taken care of the No. 2 Braves twice by a combined score of 61-14. In the two teams’ meeting earlier this season, in Week 6, the Aggies handed the Braves a 24-7 defeat. Last season, O-A/E beat Avon, 37-7, in Week 5.

“It’s been a team effort,” said Oakfield-Alabama/Elba senior running back Gaige Armbrewster on what’s led to the Aggies’ recent success against the Braves. “All three sides of the ball, it’s just been everyone working as a team and playing with heart.”

In the Week 6 tilt this fall, O-A/E seized a 21-7 lead at the half before adding a late field goal to help seal the deal in what was a fairly easy victory. The Aggies dominated the time of possession battle, holding the ball for nearly 17 minutes more than the Braves behind a fierce rushing attack powered by Armbrewster. Oakfield-Alabama/Elba also benefitted from a breakout performance from junior RB Noah Currier and utilized a flawless effort from sophomore quarterback Bodie Hyde to move past Avon. The Aggies’ defense was also up to the task, as junior linebacker Connor Scott’s destructive afternoon helped O-A/E limit the Braves to 218 yards of total offense, their lowest yardage output of the season.

While it’s still the defending Class D champion, Avon was outclassed by O-A/E on that day earlier this season and thus will enter the title game as a significant underdog. Following two straight convincing defeats at the hands of the Aggies, Avon has a tall hill to climb this weekend. But that doesn’t mean that O-A/E is taking the Braves lightly.

“You can’t live in the past,” said O-A/E senior lineman C.J. Gottler. “You need to take it a game at a time. It’s a faceless opponent. You have to show up to play, especially in a big game like this.”

If the Braves hope to turn the tide against O-A/E, they must do so on the backs of their two senior ball-carriers — RB Thomas Welch and QB Andrew Rowland — who were held in check the last time these two teams met. In the Week 6 loss to the Aggies, Welch had a solid day and averaged over seven yards per carry, but Rowland struggled to get things going and finished with just 52 rushing yards and the Braves’ lone touchdown on 17 carries. This week, Avon will need both Welch and Rowland to be at their best to keep pace with a potent Aggies offense.

“They’re two phenomenal athletes,” said Winter of Welch and Rowland. “Welch plays the game like he’s a 190-lbs running back, the way he runs downhill. Rowland is so smart and savvy with the ball — they’re a dynamic duo for sure.”

Not very often has the Braves duo been slowed this season, as Welch and Rowland have done good work behind a beefy offensive line, which features three seniors — Shane Ellsworth, Carter Fronk and Nick Antkowiak. The signature of the Braves’ offensive line is its size, as Avon’s front weighs in at an average of 275-plus pounds per player. The size and strength of the Braves O-line have helped Welch (1,093) and Rowland (903) combine for nearly 2,000 rushing yards this season.

In addition to the work of the Braves’ ground game, Rowland can throw it if provided ample time to do so. The senior QB has completed nearly 60% of his passes for over 1,000 yards and nine touchdown passes against seven interceptions this season. One of those INTs came during the Braves’ loss to O-A/E in Week 6, a game in which Rowland finished 10-of-17 passing for 79 yards.

If Rowland happens to ignite the Avon passing game, look out for sophomore wide receiver Michael Rowland and senior WR Dylan Smith, two of the Braves QB’s top targets.

Much like Avon, propelling the Aggies’ attack this season has been a powerful rushing attack, highlighted by the efforts of Armbrewster, who has made a strong case for Class D Offensive Player of the Year with a total of 1,258 rushing yards and 16 rushing TDs in his final varsity season.

In the Week 6 win over the Braves, Armbrewster carried the mail for the O-A/E offense, grinding out 74 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown on 21 totes. Hyde added a big day through the air, completing 7-of-12 passes for 91 yards and a passing score. Hyde’s TD pass went to Currier, who finished the game with three receptions for 52 yards and a receiving touchdown. Currier also returned a kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown.

Armbrewster has been the lead dog for the O-A/E backfield this season, but with the Aggies going up against a well-coached team in Avon, don’t expect things to come easy to the senior RB this weekend — as was the case in the two teams’ first meeting this season. Instead, anticipate a tough slog for Armbrewster against an experienced and hard-nosed Braves defense that is sure to throw everything but the kitchen sink at the senior RB.

Suppose the Aggies take care of business, beat the Braves for the third consecutive time and claim their first 11-man championship as a combined program. In that case, they will likely have been forced to look to Hyde, Currier and a few others to carry them through some significant moments in the title game.

“We have a lot of backs that can do their thing and we have different people who can make plays in big moments,” said Hyde, confident in his team’s ability to spread the ball around. “We can all do our thing when it comes down to it.”

Another crucial factor for O-A/E in this matchup will be the performance of an undersized yet strong and athletic offensive line. Against a sizable Braves front, it will be critical for the Aggies to set the tone early and establish the line of scrimmage while using their speed and versatility to their advantage. Oakfield-Alabama/Elba’s offensive line, which averages 220 lbs per player, consists of two seniors, Ethan Cramer and C.J. Gottler. Junior OL Brayden Smith has also been a two-way force for the Aggies. That group has a tough challenge in front of them with the Avon front.

“I can’t wait, it’s going to be a dogfight,” said Gottler of the battle in the trenches.

With all the talk about the offensive side of the ball, as most championship games often do, this one will most certainly be won on the defensive side of the ball. As high-powered as both teams’ offenses have been throughout the year, each side has been equally as impressive on ‘D.’

For the Aggies, a relentless front four has powered their efforts defensively. Seniors Gottler and Cramer and the junior Smith have been outstanding for O-A/E, as the senior duo has combined for over 150 tackles while Smith has provided great support as well. Gottler is a leading candidate for Class D Defensive Player of the Year, totaling a team-high 24 tackles for loss and three sacks this season. Aggies senior defensive end Kaden Cusmano has filled up the stat sheet as well, as has his twin brother Kameron who plays linebacker.

Welch, along with Michael and Andrew Rowland, have been the leaders of the Avon defense, while senior linebacker Will Greenwood has also had a fine season and enters the championship game with 13 tackles for loss to his record.

“We need to be able to tackle their running backs,” said Avon head coach Andy Englert. “Their quarterback is also a very talented player, so we need to keep pressure on him too. We need to get off the field on third down and not let mistakes hurt us.“

Just one team can walk away as the winner at game’s end, but both of these teams have proven themselves championship-worthy each of the past two seasons. An incredible run for these squads and these seniors is set to reach a climax, with an all-time clash of Class D titans scheduled for this weekend.

“This team wants it really bad,“ said Armbrewster. “I’ve never been apart of a team that wants it this bad.”

Get your popcorn ready. It’s sure to be a good one beneath the Friday night lights.

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