by Scott Eddy
Southwestern Writes Storybook Ending To Repeat
Hollywood might not be calling on Southwestern any time soon, but the storyline the past two seasons is the stuff of the silver screen.
Just ask Coach Jay Sirianni.
Following their Oct. 12, 2007 loss to Fredonia which cost Southwestern a spot in that Class B playoffs, the members of the team made a promise to themselves to never experience the feeling of defeat on the football field again. The players who were seniors that year won their last three games in the consolation playoffs, the juniors went out state champions one year ago, and the group of then- sophomores won their final 29 varsity games and claimed back-to-back state championships with their 40-14 win over Bronxville last Saturday.
“The kids that were in that locker room vowed to never lose again,” Sirianni said. “And the guys that were sophomores and started in that game didn’t lose again. That’s storybook stuff right there.”
A story the group of 13 now-senior players had every intention of writing from the start.
“Once we said that we weren’t going to lose again,” senior quarterback Zach Sopak said, “We believed it.”
Southwestern went on to make the rest of Western New York and indeed the entire state believe, too.
During the win streak, Southwestern has won its games by an average of more than 24 points per game; held the opposition to single-digit offense in 20 of those victories and put up more than 30 points of offense on 19 occasions.
But the most impressive number of them all is the number two, representing back-to-back Class C state championship, the first in school history. While last season’s title may have been about beating the odds, this year Southwestern lived up to all its lofty expectations and then some.
“A lot of people ask if coming back the second time and doing it again is not exciting because you know what to expect, but I think this was actually a better felling,” senior Levi Bursch said. “Last year, we considered ourselves to be the underdogs and this year we had the target on our backs. We were supposed to win. The fact that we lived up to those expectations is phenomenal.”
A number of the players from this year’s graduating class who first joined the varsity roster as juniors will likely have many stories to tell from their time on the high school gridiron. One experience they won’t be able to describe, however, is losing simply because they wouldn’t know the feeling.
“Not a lot of people can say they went undefeated as a varsity player,“ senior Ryan Buzzetto said. “A lot of us can say we’ve done that. We talked about winning one (state title) when we were little, but I never thought we could do two.”
The success of Southwestern is nearly unparalleled locally. Only three other Section VI programs have captured back-to-back state championships: Jamestown (Class A, 1994-95), Lackawanna (Class B, 1997-98) and Sweet Home (Class A, 2008-09).
The secret may come from the Trojan’s ability to win in all facets of the game. Southwestern didn’t have its best ground game against Bronxville, Bursch led the team with79 yards rushing, but did more than enough to light up the scoreboard through the air. Sopak passed for 220 yards and four scores – two each to Nick Austin and Bursch.
“That’s why our team is as good as it is,” Bursch said. “We’re balanced. When one thing isn’t working we move on to the next.”
Southwestern has found balance around the offense with a number of playmakers. Sopak finished the senior campaign with 1,848 yards passing and 21 touchdowns through the air as well as 823 yards rushing and 11 scores. Bursch led the team in rushing with 909 yards and 10 TDs to go along with John Mistretta”s 865 yards and 14 TDs, Bursch also added 36 catches and four touchdown receptions to lead the receiving core along with Austin’s 28 catches and four scores and Will Sleggs’ 26 receptions and two TDS.
“The poise these kids have is unbelievable but that’s the mark of a champion.” Sirianni said. “A lot of teams are one dimensional and we’re not. We can run the ball, we can throw the ball. The goal is to be balanced and we’ve been able to do that.”
Defensively, Buzetto led the way against Bronxville with 16 tackles to finish with 118 for the season, just ahead of Sleggs’ 117.
“Our kids are aware of how blessed they are, but they earned their way here,” Sirianni said.
The performance was enough even to impress the Trojans’ head coach.
“Every time we come off the field I pick apart things we could’ve done better, but, I have nothing to say about that,” Sirianni joked postgame. “I couldn’t be more satisfied; I’m so proud of our guys and what they were able to accomplish the last two years.”
Sirianni, an alum of the school, then, put a bit of perspective on the accomplishments of his program.
“Southwestern football 20 years ago was struggling to win games and now look at this,” he said. “Everybody who’s ever played at Southwestern and everybody in our community should be proud.”
He then took a look around at the Carrier Dome – the smiling faces of his players, Southwestern fans and family members all drinking in the moment.
“Another state championship,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”
And the secret to the Trojans’ dream run? It’s simple, really.
“The secret to our success is we have a bunch of guys who love to play football, Sopak said, then added, “And we just love winning games.”
The history books will reflect that fact quite nicely.