Schalmont's Nico Nicoletti throws the ball past the out-stretched hand of Peru's Erik Provost.
For Schalmont head coach Joe Whipple, the story has been all too familiar.
Get a big lead, then watch as the other team comes back, hoping the Sabres’ defense will make that final key stop.
On Nov. 12, the Sabres built up a 25-0 lead after the opening possession of the third quarter, only to see the Peru Indians cut that lead to 25-20 with one minute to go and the ball.
This time, the big play came from freshman defensive back Nick Gallo, whose hit on Indian receiver Tyler Murphy jolted the ball out of his hands, with teammate Jean Gomez covering up to secure a trip to the Class B Final Four.
“They have a lot of good players, and we knew that the pass was coming at some point,” Gallo said. “I was in zone coverage on the half of the field near our bench. I happened to be in the right spot at the right time and was able to put a clean hit on the receiver.”
“I just wanted to stop them anyway that we could and get the ball back for my team,” Gomez said. “My only thought was to get to the ball and cover it up. I was so happy.”
“We have had this happen three or four times this year,” Whipple said. “Peru really fought back, which is a great statement for their program. Nick has done a great job and has made several big plays for us as a freshman.”
Gallo also had one of four first-half interceptions, which included picks on the first three possessions by the Indians.
“Without those, you don’t know what happens,” Whipple said. “In high school, football is a game of momentum, and that was huge for us early on.”
In the opening half, the Sabres scored on a 10-yard option run by quarterback Nico Nicoletti following a first play interception by Devon Willis. Nicoletti then scored on a 44-yard run following interceptions by Gallo and Alex Hildebrand, who caught the third touchdown on a 25-yard pass from Nicoletti to give the Sabres a 19-0 halftime lead after Nicoletti ended the half with an interception.
Kyle Strube scored on a four-yard run to give the Sabres a 25-0 lead halfway into the third quarter before the Indians got their first possession of the half and started to go to work.
On the ensuing drive, Peru quarterback Taylor Rock found Mike Holdridge for a 42-yard scoring play, putting the Indians on the board. After a Hunter Bruno fumble recovery, Rock scored on a one-yard sneak play to cut the lead to 25-12 as the third quarter ended.
In the fourth quarter, Holdridge intercepted Nicoletti, leading to a Peru drive that lasted 19 plays and took 5:07 off the clock, with Jeff Kurz scoring from two yards out. The Indians added a two-point conversion to narrow the gap to 25-20.
The Sabres were forced to just three plays on their next drive, punting the ball back to the Indians with 55 seconds left and setting up the final plays of the game, ending with the Gallo game-saving hit.
“Our seniors did not want to give in,” Peru head coach Nick Damiani said. “They were the ones that got the belief back into the program. They had a great second half because they knew that they had to lay it all on the line or the season was over.”
Damiani said he was pleased with the way the team responded to the turnover issues in the first quarter of the game.
“After the opening two possessions and then the first drive of the third quarter, they really didn’t do anything besides that,” he said. “You just can’t give a good team opportunities like we gave them.”
Nicoletti finished with 49 passing yards and 73 rushing yards and combined for three touchdowns for the Sabres, while Willis had 43 yards rushing and Hildebrand combined 72 rushing yards with 30 receiving yards and one score. Gallo finished defensively with a pair of tackles for loss, an interception and a forced fumble, while Brian Pomykai had two sacks and Mike Floccuzio had two tackles for loss, including a sack.
Rock finished 22 of 33 passing for 199 yards and two scores to go with the three picks, while Alex Cederstrom had 43 yards rushing and Holdridge had 126 yards receiving and one score. Hunter Bruno had 2.5 tackles for loss, while Cederstrom had 3.5 TFL and one sack and Tim Remillard had 2.0 TFL.