Things seemed to be going Livonia's way in the first half of the Class B Section V semifinal game in Rochester yesterday afternoon.
The Bulldogs controlled the ball for much of the first two quarters while the Batavia offense sputtered, with the team getting its only points in the half on a 71-yard kickoff return by Chandler Baker.
Livonia led the Blue Devils 14-8, but this is Batavia on the field. Head Coach Brennan Briggs preaches "relentless football." Toughness is a given, and when the Blue Devils took possession to open the first half the determination to play tough was apparent.
Batavia scored on their opening drive, followed by a fumble recovery on Livonia's first possession, and the Bulldogs never got back in the game.
It's almost as if you could watch Livonia's fight fade with each passing down.
"Livingston County is great football and they’re tough kids, but I do believe at the end of the day, we’ve got one of the toughest football teams going and these guys pride themselves on it," Briggs said. "When we sniff a little bit of weakness, we’re going to go after it and we’re going to keep going and we’re not going to stop."
The Bulldogs seemed to game plan well to counter the ground threat of sophomore Ray Leach, who was held to only 28 yards on 15 carries for the game, so in the second half, Briggs switched things up a bit, letting QB Jerry Reinhart use his arms and legs more.
Reinhart finished with 73 rushing yards on 13 carries. He was also 7-14 passing for 121 yards and a TD.
His favorite target was Leach, who had four catches for 73 yards, including a 23-yarder for a TD.
“You get number 34 in space and he’s deadly," Briggs said. "Our quarterback can get the ball to him and get him in space where they can’t bottle everything up and then somebody has to make a play on Ray Leach in space and that’s pretty difficult to do.”
Leach was also a factor on defense coming up with big play after big play, including snuffing out a Livonia drive with an interception in the end zone.
"He likes to hit," Briggs said. "He likes to bring the stick. He gets fired up. He did a good job doing his 1/11th and he was locked down to defend one of their best receivers. I’m proud of him and I’m proud of this football team."
The defensive dominance by the Blue Devils in the second half was a team effort, with contributions from Reinhart, Chandler Baker, J'Zon Richardson and Anthony Ray.
The defensive line stiffened in the second half, doing a better job of bottling up Brody Metcalf, Matt Hyde and John Smith on the ground, pushing back the O-line and harassing Metcalf more consistently when he dropped back to pass.
“To be honest, that’s not scheme," Briggs said while discussing some of the second-half defensive adjustments. "That’s our guys deciding that they’re really going to start to take over."
It's almost as if Batavia could smell blood in the water after that first fumble (there were two in the second half (three actually, but the refs gave the ball to Livonia)).
Briggs said his team knows how to sniff out another team's weakness and exploit it. Reinhart agreed.
"If you keep pounding somebody’s weakness, they’re going to slow down, no matter who it is," Reinhart said.
Batavia won 31-20 after Livonia scored a TD in the final second of play (see last picture in slideshow).
The Blue Devils now have a chance to three-peat as sectional champions. This is a very different team from the one that took home the trophy each of the past two seasons and Briggs said this year's squad has had a bit of a chip on its shoulder because of comparisons.
"These guys have their identity now," Briggs said. "A lot of people talk about that we graduated 16, 17 players and Batavia wasn’t going to be there, but here we are and we’re still going to keep that chip on our shoulders."
Reinhart said that identity is built around the team's motto, "relentless."
"That’s what is says on the back of al our T-shirts: relentless, and that’s how we play football," Reinhart said. "We hit these guys and we don’t stop until the game’s over."
Next Saturday at 3 p.m., Batavia will be back in Rochester to face Hornell for the Section V Class B championship. Hornell has been out of the post-season picture the past couple of years but comes into the final, like Batavia, undefeated for 2016. Yesterday, the Red Raiders beat Palmyra-Macedon 49-29.
Top photo: Codie Dioguardi scores on Batavia's opening second-half drive.
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