Reigning State Champs, Orchard Park, Advance in Playoffs

About a year ago at Ralph Wilson Stadium, North Tonawanda gave Orchard Park what would be its toughest postseason test until the state championship game.

Most of the NT players hadn’t watched the film of the Lumberjacks’ 28-13 Section VI Class AA championship loss until this past week.

“I think they realized that they were two mistakes away from beating the team,” said North Tonawanda coach Eric Jantzi. “Our kids put a lot of pride in winning football games, and to lose was pretty hurtful for them. They’ve taken a good approach this year, we have some good senior leadership and we’re pretty athletic, and we’ll see how the chips fall.”

When it comes to Section VI football, the chips don’t get much bigger and badder than the ones that will fall tonight.

Orchard Park will arrive at the Lumberjack Sports Complex for the 7 p.m. semifinal as the reigning Class AA state champions. The Quakers (7-1), ranked fourth among large schools, are seeking their ninth straight trip to the Section VI finals, where they have won the last five titles.

Class AA North champion North Tonawanda (8-0) is the No. 3 large school and has been one of the most dominant teams in Western New York this season.

It is the sixth time in the last eight postseasons the teams have battled. Orchard Park is 4-1 against NT over that span, 3-1 in Section VI title games. OP won the teams’ only previous semifinal appearance, 27-0, in 2006.

The winner advances to The Ralph and the AA final against the winner of tonight’s 7:30 p.m. matchup of Lockport at No. 2 large school Lancaster.

Orchard Park coach Gene Tundo calls this North Tonawanda team “the most explosive I’ve seen.

“We’re going to have to stop an offense that produces 50 to 60 points a game,” said Tundo. “That’s going to be really tough to do. They have a great quarterback [senior Mike Tuzzo], a great fullback [senior Steve Kijowski], and their pitch backs are dangerous and their skill guys are good. They have a lot of options just running the ball, and they make a lot of plays in the throwing game.

“In the past, they’ve been good at one position but now they are balanced, and their defense is outstanding, too. This is an incredible team that we’re going against.”

For Jantzi, he looks at Orchard Park and sees what he usually sees.

“They’re big, physical, athletic — like they always are,” said the 10th-year coach. “We’re hoping we can compete.”

The teams’ last battle was a tight one. OP held a 21-13 lead for most of the second half of last year’s championship game. OP’s defense held despite three NT trips inside the 30 and the game was only decided when Jeff Tundo, Gene’s son, scored on a 53-yard run with 1:38 left in the game.

“They drove down to our 20 on fourth-and-2, they could have scored to take the lead in the final minutes, but we came up with a big stop,” said Tundo. “We’ve had several battles with this team. A lot of their better kids are back from that team. We haven’t taken these guys lightly at all. We know the road ahead is tough.”

When OP won the state title last year, Tundo gave credit to teams like North Tonawanda for toughening up the Quakers for their playoff run.

“I look at last year as that they helped us get to the state final — they challenged us,” said Tundo. “Hopefully we’ll come out on the top of the battle again.”

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