Eisenhower Beats Rochester High in Football Districts

It’s not how you start, but how you finish. Utica Eisenhower proved that Friday in a Division 1 pre-district game against Rochester.

The Eagles, who are making their 19th straight appearance in postseason, one of the longest in state history, overcame a slow start to eventually defeat the visiting Falcons 24-14 at Swinehart Stadium.

Eisenhower, now 9-1, will travel to Romeo next Friday for the district finals to try to avenge its only loss of the season.

The Eagles, who were held to only 82 yards of offense in the first half and 206 total yards on the night by the Rochester defense, took advantage of two long kick returns that led to two quick scores.

Eisenhower’s defense also shut down the Falcons in the second half, limiting the guests to just 42 yards after halftime. The Falcons outgained Eisenhower 230-85 in the first half, while Ike held the 121-42 edge over the final 24 minutes.

“It’s all hard work and determination,” said Eisenhower coach Bob Lantzy. “(We’re) 9-1 and the wins are not easy. (Rochester) played very hard and the thing we’ve been able to do is answer. I was telling the kids, we answer with our offense on one drive. We answered with our special teams on two big plays. And then the defense answered in the third quarter, to hold them down in that hole (on the 2-yard line).”

Rochester led 14-7 late in the first half, but the Falcons let their guards down on the kickoff, as Eisenhower’s Alfonzo Vultaggio returned the kickoff 75 yard to tie the score at 14-14 with just 2.9 seconds before the half.

The Eagles benefitted from another long kickoff return to start the second half. This time Vultaggio returned the opening kick 58 yards down to the Falcons’ 20. Four plays later, Daniel Gjocaj booted a 28-yard field goal for what proved to be the eventual game-winning points.

“I think the one (return) in the second half was even bigger. That gave them field position down at (our) 20,” said Rochester coach Erik Vernon, whose team turned the tables, going 1-8 last season to 6-4 this year. We tried to rally them at halftime and I thought came out. We just didn’t tackle on the kick return. It was tough break for these guys. They did a great job this year.”

Eisenhower, which forced one turnover in the second half, added an insurance touchdown later in the third quarter when quarterback Joe Zerafa scored on a 1-yard keeper. The quick seven-play drive was set up by field position at the Falcons’ 41 after Ike forced Rochester to punt from its own end zone.

Rochester, which was coming off 10 straight losing seasons, was making its first postseason appearance since 1999, but couldn’t find the offensive firepower in the second half to keep with the Eagles, who have reached the state finals four times in school history.

“I’m proud of everyone on the team. They’re a great group of kids. (The) seniors, juniors and sophomores we had. I couldn’t be more proud of them,” added Vernon.

Eisenhower and Rochester have met in the postseason one other time, coming in a Class A regional opener in 1988. Eisenhower won that game 6-0 en route to making the state semifinals that season.

The Falcons (6-4) did something Friday they did not do in that 1988 contest. Rochester took the opening drive down the field 87 yards in 10 plays for the score, capped when Michael Kmiec scored on a 7-yard run to put Rochester up 7-0 with 7:28 left in the first quarter.

Rochester, which dropped to 0-4 all-time in the postseason, also turned the ball over on downs later in the quarter, when a dropped pass on the Eisenhower 15 would have given the Falcons a first down.

Eisenhower finally tied the game with 9:54 to go in the half, when Brandon Bartneck hauled in a 19-yard pass on the near sideline from the arm of Zerafa

The Falcons put together another long drive in the second quarter after Billy Klotz picked off a Zerafa pass at the Rochester 8 yard line. Rochester ended the 16-play drive that chewed up more than six minutes off the clock when quarterback Nick Bradley barreled into the end zone on a 1-yard sneak with 14.2 seconds left in the half.