BINGHAMTON – An opportunistic Unatego squad that forced five turnovers Saturday afternoon, including a clinching interception in the end zone by Corbin Henry in the closing seconds, will now head into a sectional football final for the first time since 2007.
The second-seeded Spartans (8-1) took the lead 2 minutes, 14 seconds into play and held it the rest of the way – barely – en route to a 20-12 Section Four Class D semifinal victory over No. 3 Elmira Notre Dame on a cool autumn day at Binghamton Alumni Stadium.
“We just swarm to the ball,” said Henry, a senior who finished the day with two interceptions, a fumble recovery and a 6-yard scoring run.
Unatego coach Frank Microni accurately said following the game that his team’s defense won the game. It’s likely the ball-hawking Spartans will need to create more takeaways this coming Saturday, when they’ll face a 9-0 Tioga squad that put a 54-0 hurting on Spencer-Van Etten in the other semifinal at Binghamton Alumni.
“We do capitalize on turnovers quite a bit,” said Microni, whose team will play the top-seeded Tigers at noon Saturday back at Binghamton Alumni in a rematch of last season’s Section Four Class D semifinal that Tioga won, 26-21, en route to reaching the state semifinals. “That’s been our M.O. all season. It does the turn the tide.”
Perhaps the play that best describes the Spartans’ eighth straight victory early came in the third quarter. Trailing, 7-6, the Crusaders started the opening possession of the second half at their 41 and drove to Unatego’s 27.
A holding penalty pushed END back to its 38, where it faced a fourth-and-17. Quarterback Hunter Thomas rolled right and couldn’t find anybody. He then threw across his body, but senior linebacker Joel VanAlstine dropped into coverage, moved to his right and intercepted the pass at the 20-yard line.
“My coach told me to read that quarterback and watch his eyes,” VanAlstine said. “I just watched his eyes and found that ball. He popped it right to me.”
VanAlstine then did his best impression of his speedy older brother, David, a 2012 Daily Star First Team All-Star as a running back and one of 14 seniors who graduated off of last season’s 6-3 squad.
VanAlstine headed to the right sideline and as he reached midfield, cut back across the field on a 71-yard return to the Crusaders’ 9.
“Yeah, I did,” Joel said when asked if he learned anything from watching his brother’s electrifying runs over the past couple of seasons. “My big brother is really crazy and he’s a great athlete. He taught me everything.”
One play later, Henry scored on an inside run from 6 yards and Josh Feyerabend’s extra point gave Unatego a 14-6 lead.
Late in the third quarter, the Spartans had a golden chance to increase their lead. After END turned the ball over on downs at Unatego’s 32, the Spartans used four runs and four passes to drive to the Crusaders’ 10. Feyerabend went 4-for-4 passing on the drive, the last a 9-yard hook up with Tanner Winchester near the left sideline that gave Unatego a first-and-goal.
On the next play, Winchester came in motion from the left side, took a handoff from Feyerabend and turned the corner near the right sideline. As he neared the goal line, Winchester extended the ball, but an END defender knocked it free and the Crusaders recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchback.
END then embarked on an 80-yard scoring drive that bridged the third and fourth quarters. Thomas hit a sliding Joe Prunier near the left sideline on a fourth-and-4, giving END a first-and-goal at the 8. Derrick Stark scored on an inside trap on the next play as the Crusaders closed to 14-12 with 8:28 left.
On the two-point try, Stark tried the middle of Unatego’s defense, but Nate Wilsey penetrated and slowed Stark’s progress before a host of Spartans finished him off 2 yards short of the end zone.
Unatego followed with a six-minute drive that covered 62 yards. Included in the march was a 27-yard run off right tackle by Winchester, an 8-yard completion from Feyerabend to Jared Jones on the right side on a fourth-and-2, and a 1-yard scoring plunge by Winchester on fourth-and-goal.
“That drive I think we used the clock very well,” Microni said. “I think we hit some little passes and used the run. We used a lot of the clock.”
Winchester followed a block by pulling guard Ethan Barber as he dived across the goal line on his scoring run, which came with 2:38 left. Feyerabend’s PAT was blocked, leaving the score at 20-12.
A 30-yard return on the ensuing kickoff by Prunier set up END’s at Unatego’s 44, but the Crusaders had no timeouts. On first down, Whitson went off tackle on the left side for 27 yards, only a diving tackle by Braedon Beadle preventing a touchdown.
It set up END at Unatego’s 17.
Two plays later, Whitson, who gained all but 10 of his game-high 112 rushing yards in the second half, gained 8 yards on a sweep to the left, setting up first-and-goal at the 4.
On the next play, Wilsey dropped Stark for a 2-yard loss.
With about 20 seconds left, Thomas rolled left and threw to the corner of the end zone, but Henry was there for an easy interception to seal it.
“Every time you let someone get behind you in practice, you get yelled at,” said Henry, who was the deepest player on the final interception. “We have to make sure no one gets behind us.”
It looked like this one would be shootout early on as both teams scored quickly on their first possessions.
Kellen Komenda made a pair of circus catches on Unatego’s opening drive, a 61-yard drive.
He made a 27-yard catch to END’s 11 that likely would have shown up on ESPN’s SportsCenter had any video made it to Bristol, Conn. With Derrick Marshall blanketing him on the right side of the field, Komenda tipped an underthrown pass from Feyerabend and then secured the deflection between his legs.
Two plays later, Komenda leaped between Marshall and Whitson in the right-middle of the end zone on a 19-yard scoring play. Feyerabend, who went 15-for-29 for 228 yards, then kicked the PAT to make it 7-0, with 9:46 left in the first quarter.
“They’re not designed,” said Microni, who was an assistant coach when Unatego last played in a sectional final, a 28-22 win over Lansing in the 2007 Class C title game. “(Komenda’s) a pretty good athlete. Sometimes, Josh falls in love with a little bit. We’re telling him to check down, but he likes to go deep. He’s young and Kellen makes plays for him. He’ll throw it up there even if he’s covered.”
END answered on its first play from coverage as Tom Agan took a double-handoff 60 yards up the left side for a touchdown. Troy Dygert was stopped about a foot short on the conversion, making the score, 7-6.
Three of END’s next four possessions ended in turnovers. Wilsey intercepted Hunter late in the first quarter after the Crusaders drove to Unatego’s 26, Henry recovered a fumble by Agan in the second quarter and Henry picked off Hunter to halt an END drive that reached Unatego’s 32 just before halftime.
“We focus on when that ball is loose or that ball is in the air at finding it and grabbing it or receiving it,” VanAlstine said.
Unatego’s 150-pound linebacker also said the Spartans made good on a promise made to last year’s seniors.
“This is great,” he said. “We get to back to face Tioga, which is really big because when we lost all those seniors, we vowed we’d see them again. This year, it’s for the championship and that’s a great feeling.”
Unatego 20, Elmira ND 12
SECTION FOUR CLASS D
Semifinal at Binghamton Alumni Stadium
Elmira ND 6 0 0 6 – 12
Unatego 7 0 7 6 – 20
U – Kellen Komenda 19 pass from Josh Feyerabend (Josh Feyerabend kick), 9:46
E – Tom Agan 60 run (run failed), 9:27
U – Corbin Henry 6 run (Josh Feyerabend kick), 8:02
E – Derrick Stark 8 run (run failed), 8:28
U – Tanner Winchester 1 run (kick blocked), 2:38
Elmira Notre Dame rushing: Tom Agan 8-98, Joe Prunier 3-0, Chris Whitson 12-111, Derrick Stark 7-39, Hunter Thomas 5-(-4), Troy Dygert 2-6.
Unatego rushing: Tanner Winchester 5-46, Corbin Henry 7-19, Kellen Komenda 4-18, Ryan Marszal 6-18, Josh Feyerabend 7-(-9).
Elmira Notre Dame passing: Hunter Thomas 14-for-24, 111 yards, 4 ints.
Unatego passing: Josh Feyerabend 15-for-29, 228 yards.
Elmira Notre Dame receiving: Derrick Marshall 9-61, Tom Agan 2-31, Joe Prunier 2-15, Derrick Stark 1-4.
Unatego receiving: Tanner Winchester 5-82, Kellen Komenda 4-74, Kyle Spaulding 2-33, Jared Jones 2-13, Corbin Henry 1-14, Ryan Marszal 1-12.
Rob Centorani can be reached at email@example.com or 607-432-1000, ext. 209.