GRANVILLE — Sometimes change comes in slow, painful steps.
The Lake George/Hadley-Luzerne and Granville football programs understand this well, having gone through growing pains in recent seasons.
Mark Saturday down as the day the WarEagles arrived, with a resounding 40-16 Class C North victory over Granville that assured them of their first playoff berth — and winning season — since 2009.
“We haven’t done this in (nine) years. To give this to the program is awesome,” said senior fullback Jimmy Kelleher, who pounded his way to 96 yards and four touchdowns.
“For the past couple of years, it’s always been football team, losing team,” senior quarterback Michael Johnson said. “And to finally secure a playoff spot, everybody’s looking at the team differently. We’re proving people wrong.”
In a damp, chilly winner-gets-in game to end the regular season, the WarEagles (3-2 division, 5-2 overall) collected six turnovers and got a huge momentum boost to end the first half.
Twenty seconds before halftime, Andrew Warner picked off a Granville pass. Then, Johnson found sophomore receiver Sean Butkowski downfield for a 42-yard gain to the Golden Horde 12.
On the final play of the half, Johnson hit Butkowski on a fade route to the right corner of the end zone to give LG/H-L a 20-8 halftime lead.
At 6-foot-3, the rangy Butkowski had a height advantage over the defensive back covering him.
“I saw the mismatch with Sean, (he’s) just a big dude — he’d go up and catch it,” Johnson said. “They had one safety in the middle of the field, so I looked him off to the left side. I trust Sean’s hands against that kid, so I just threw it up and he went and got it.”
“That was two big throws by Michael,” Butkowski said. “The mismatch on the outside was a big part of it. I just saw Michael throw it up — corner of the end zone, big on small, that’s pretty much what it was.”
“That was just huge,” LG/H-L head coach Jeff Bennett said of the touchdown. “The fact that we had 20 seconds (until halftime) and the kids were just able to execute.”
The pass play that was intercepted moments earlier was a call that Golden Horde head coach John Irion certainly wished he had back.
“That one’s on me, that’s my mistake,” he said. “I should’ve probably taken a knee, but we were trying to attack.”
Granville (2-3, 3-4) then fumbled away the ball on the first play of the second half, with Warner’s recovery leading to another Kelleher touchdown and a 26-8 lead.
The Horde got a 40-yard touchdown pass from Josh Oakman to a wide-open Cody Rice early in the fourth quarter to pull within 26-16. However, LG/H-L’s Cameron Duers scooped up the onsides kickoff and returned it to the 1, and Kelleher scored on the next play.
Isaiah Burnett also scored for the WarEagles in the first quarter.
“Unbelievable team effort by everybody,” Bennett said. “We knew that if we won, we were making history for our program.”
“It will change the culture here,” Kelleher said. “Now it’s a winning culture — the past years are behind us. It’s now, it’s playoff season.”