PLATTSBURGH — Saranac Lake's football team is back on top.
In a wild back-and-forth Section VII Class C championship game played Saturday afternoon at Plattsburgh High, the Red Storm defeated AuSable Valley, 31-26, for their first sectional title since 2016.
A week ago in the Class C semifinal, Saranac Lake jumped out to a three-touchdown lead on the way to taking down two-time defending champion Saranac by a 21-7 score.
That wasn't the case against the Patriots, as the Red Storm rallied three times and then made a victory-clinching defensive stand in the final minute of the game to seal the deal.
In a matchup peppered with big plays made by both teams, Saranac Lake senior receiver Jeffery LaVair hauled in three touchdown passes from quarterback Rhett Darrah, Ben Munn rushed for 132 yards and one touchdown and Darrah also ran for a score.
Senior quarterback Evan Snow had a standout day for AuSable Valley in his last high school football game. He finished with four touchdown throws and 310 passing yards in a 12-for-20 performance. The three other Patriots' threats the Red Storm were concerned about also put points on the board. The pass catching duo of Eli Douglas and Luis Perez combined for 229 yards and three touchdowns on two receptions, and running back Nate Doner added a touchdown on a 69-yard pass-and-run grab.
All four of AuSable Valley's touchdowns came on plays of 45 yards and longer, but Saranac Lake was able to answer with a quarterback option offense that gained 209 yards and moved the chains and limited the Patriots time with the ball.
"I thought coming into the game we were going to be able to run the ball," Saranac Lake coach Eric Bennett said. "I thought our kids did a good job with that, and we knew we were going to have to limit their big plays. They had a lot of big plays, but we made just enough stops and we're lucky to come out on the positive side.
"It was beautiful to see that triple option go," Bennett added. "To see our quarterback keep it past the line of scrimmage and then pitch it, that was cool. It was great to see all that work and all those reps pay off."
After falling 20-15 to AuSable Valley during the third week of the Champlain Valley Athletic Conference's regular season, Saranac Lake improved to 6-3 and will next face unbeaten Section X champion Gouverneur Friday in a state regional playoff game. AuSable Valley entered Saturday's final as the top seed and ended its season with a 4-5 record.
The Patriots got off to a fast start, scoring on the first play from scrimmage on a Snow-to-Perez touchdown pass that covered 73 yards. Perez, a senior, was left wide open along the Patriots' sideline, caught a short throw from Snow and sprinted the distance, and Douglas ran in the conversion for an 8-0 AuSable Valley edge just 20 seconds into the game.
Perez, however, celebrated on his way to the end zone and was penalized, which proved costly on the ensuing kickoff after Saranac Lake's Braden Ryan returned the ball all the way to the Patriots' 21-yard line. Four plays later, the Red Storm were in the end zone on Darrah's one-yard run, and from there, the shootout was on as the teams combined for seven more touchdowns, including six through the air.
After AuSable Valley jumped out to its early 8-6 advantage, the lead changed five times during the course of the contest. Saranac Lake grabbed its first edge at 12-8 on LaVair's first scoring catch, an 84-yarder with nine seconds left in the opening quarter. The Patriots answered quickly, going back on top 14-12 with just 19 seconds gone in the second quarter when Snow connected with Doner on a short pass in the middle of the field and the sophomore then blew through the Red Storm defense for a 69-yard touchdown play.
LaVair then put Saranac Lake up 18-14, this time on a 28-yard touchdown catch with 7:03 gone in the seconds. But AuSable Valley's big-play, fast-strike offense responded again in a hurry when Douglas scored on a 52-yard pass play 23 seconds later that allowed the Patriots to carry a 20-18 lead into halftime.
LaVair scored the only points of the third quarter on a 20-yard touchdown reception that lifted Saranac Lake into a 24-20 lead heading into a tense fourth quarter.
The Red Storm took their biggest lead of the game with a nine-play, 65-yard march capped off by Munn's one-yard touchdown dive 4:02 into the final quarter. Darrah followed with a successful conversion kick to put his team up 31-20.
For the third time in the game, AuSable Valley came right back, scoring just three plays into their next possession on a 45-yard touchdown catch by Douglas. The conversion pass failed, leaving Saranac Lake clinging to a 31-26 edge.
Saranac Lake had a touchdown run by Munn called back on a penalty on its next possession, which ultimately put the ball back in the hands of the AuSable Valley offense at its own 33 with 3:04 left on the game clock. The Patriots were able to move the chains once with the game on the line when Perez came up with a 22-yard catch on a fourth-and-seven play, but the threat vanished as AuSable Valley turned the ball over on downs following three Snow incompletions and a key sack when Red Storm defensive lineman Isaiah Buckley dropped Snow for a four-yard loss.
With the ball back in their hands, the Red Storm went into victory formation, Darrah took a knee to run the clock out, and the celebration started for Saranac Lake.
Bennett said the closing moments of the game were nerve racking, but his defense came through to preserve the lead and the victory for Saranac Lake.
"They had two players on their side that could take it to the house at any second," Bennett said describing Perez and Douglas. "I was just hoping we had enough grit to prevent that from happening, and our kids played it tough, played it tight and made it happen."
"It was back and forth all day long," AuSable Valley head coach Kyle Nolan said. "Both teams played hard. We knew Saranac Lake wasn't going to be a walk-in victory. It was a tight game the last time we played. They came out ready to play, and I think we were ready to play too.
"Fundamentally, we made some mistakes and penalties killed us," Nolan continued. "Other than that it was a good ball game, a great ball game.
"We have a bunch of young kids, they never quit, and I hope this is a good learning experience for us to take the next step next year," Nolan added. "The seniors, I couldn't ask any more of them. This was a new coaching staff, we came in and they accepted us. They took us in and they believed in everything we were preaching, and we just came up short of our final goal. I'm really happy with their poise with everything they've had to go through this year. I'm proud of them. They're tough kids."
Saranac Lake 31, AuSable Valley 26
Saranac Lake 12 6 6 7 — 31
AuSable Valley 8 12 0 6 — 26
AV- Perez 73 pass from Douglas (Douglas run) 11:40
SL- Darrah 1 run (run fails) 10:13
SL- LaVair 84 pass from Darrah (run fails) :39
AV- Doner 69 pass from Snow (run fails) 11:41
SL- LaVair 28 pass from Darrah 4:57 (pass fails)
AV- Douglas 53 pass from Snow 4:29 (kick fails)
SL- LaVair 20 pass from Darrah (run fails) 3:02
SL- Munn 1 run (Darrah kick) 7:58
AV- Douglas 45 pass from Snow (pass fails) 6:24.