BY TIM TAYLOR
Tioga County Sports Report
ENDWELL - When Owego and Maine-Endwell met in late September, the Indians got within three points three times, only to have M-E answer back en route to 36-27 victory. The Spartans would fend off Owego again Saturday on the way to a 40-26 win in the Section IV Class B semifinals - in a clash which saw four touchdowns go up on the scoreboard in a span of 64 seconds.
"It was the same thing last time, right," commented Owego head coach Steve Virkler. "We came back and made it a 3-point game and they popped one up the middle. Here, we got some momentum back to score and they popped one up the middle. We came back and scored again. We just kind of ran out of time.
"We didn't get it done today. That's the bottom line."
Trailing, 28-6, the Indians struck for the first score in the four-TD frenzy with just under 11 minutes remaining in the game, and Owego facing a fourth-and-10 from its own 32. Tyler Phelps found Christian Sage open at the M-E 43, Sage pulled in the pass and outran a pair of defenders to the end zone, chopping the deficit to 28-12 with 10:44 on the clock.
Unfortunately for Owego, M-E's Rylie Van Fleet bolted 56 yards on the first play following the kick to push the lead to 34-12 at 10:24.
Not to be upstaged, Phelps went to the air again, this time for a 55-yard TD strike to Jason Kithcart on Owego's first play following the kick, closing the gap to 34-18 - and there were still 10 minutes on the clock.
Believe it or not, the Spartans answered right back on the first play following the ensuing kickoff as Van Fleet found a gaping hole and darted through, untouched for an 80-yard sprint to paydirt with 9:40 to go.
Down 40-18, Owego would answer back, just not quite so quickly. Following a fumble which they recovered, a penalty and a sack, the Indians would get headed in the right direction and Phelps connected with Sage for a 27-yard strike. Phelps and Kobe Bogart would hook up on the PAT pass, cutting the lead to 40-26 with 5:56 left.
M-E would recover the onside kick, but would have to punt, giving the Indians the ball with 3:29 to go. Owego would move the pigskin some 50 yards, but as the clock slipped under a minute, M-E came away with an interception to seal Owego's fate.
Maybe things would have been different had the Indians been able to swing the momentum to their side late in the first half. With the Spartans leading 14-6, Owego was looking to make goal line stand in the final seconds of the first half, but Ryan Brozovic scored his third TD of the game on a 1-yard run with 7.2 seconds left in the second quarter. Joe Mancini's PAT run made it 22-6 at the break.
The Indians needed to respond after receiving the second half kick, but things didn't work out as hoped. Despite a pass interference call against M-E, Owego would lose yards on a sack and a fumble and be forced to punt. The Spartans took advantage of their good fortune with Tyler Leniek scoring on a 43-yard run to give M-E a 28-6 cushion with 4:50 left in the third quarter.
Despite M-E rolling up 388 yards on the ground, there were times when the Owego defense held firm, like the game's opening possession when the Spartans turned the ball over on downs at their own 40. However, on fourth-and-seven from the M-E 27, the Indians coughed up the ball.
On M-E's next possession, Brozovic picked up 43 yards on a counter, then added a 17-yard TD run and the PAT run for an 8-0 lead just over seven minutes into the game.
"They had a couple big plays in the first quarter," Virkler said. "They ran a counter on us and got up two scores on us. We bounced back. I felt like maybe if we could have kept them out of the end zone right before halftime, momentum might have been a little bit different.
"With that said, I just thanked our guys for their effort, because I felt like we battled to the very end. That's a good football team and I felt like we battled to the very end."
Just over seven minutes into the second quarter, Brozovic scored from a yard out to make it 14-0.
With the steady rainfall during the first half, Owego didn't put the ball in the air as much as it might usually do. Phelps, who threw 20 or more times in six of eight regular season games, threw just four passes in the first half of this one. As the rain let up a little in the second half, he went topside more frequently, finishing the day 15-for-23 for 252 yards and four TDs.
The weather wasn't the only factor as Owego didn't possess the pigskin as much as it normally would. M-E controlled the ball for more than 16 of the game's first 24 minutes and more than 30 minutes overall.
"We didn't (pass as much), but to be honest with you, we didn't have a lot of offensive plays in the first half," Virkler said. "They kind of controlled the ball a little bit, had the time of possession and we really didn't get a lot of offensive plays the first half. We talked about that at halftime and we were hoping that would change a little bit the second half, so that was part of it.
"Certainly, the weather was part of it, but they were dealing with the same thing. I know they don't throw the ball as much as we do, but it is what it is. We just didn't get it done."
Owego was held to 90 yards on the ground and had just 10 runs for more than 10 yards. Meanwhile, Phelps was consistently pressured in the backfield, suffering six sacks.
Sage had some success on the receiving end of Phelps' passes, snagging eight balls for 141 yards. Kithcart had three receptions for 83 yards, and Bogart and Michael Wasyln combined for four catches for 28 yards.
Van Fleet did most of the legwork for the Spartans, collecting 183 yards on 11 carries. Brozovic added 90 on 11 runs and Mancini toted the rock 17 times for 54 yards. Nine of M-E's 50 carries were double-digit gains.
Virkler reflected briefly on a season in which Section IV had Chenango Forks, M-E and Owego (6-3) ranked in the Class B top 25, and Norwich as an honorable mention, for several weeks.
"We lost to two of the best teams in the state and competed in all three of those losses," he said. "What a great group of kids that we have. They just battled every week. At practice during the week, they were fun. And we had a great week of practice. I was excited to play today and it was just unfortunate we came out on the short end."
M-E (8-1) will face Forks (9-0) for the sectional title next week.
IN PHOTO 1: Owego's Jyzaiah Race (51). ... PHOTOS BY TIM TAYLOR.
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