The Maroon Miracle
pblackwell, Sun, November 26th, 2006
Here in Upstate New York, we’re quite familiar with the tales of sports teams not expected to find their way to the top, but doing so anyway.
That U.S. hockey team in 1980 at Lake Placid. Or the Buffalo Bills making that playoff comeback against Houston. Or Syracuse basketball in 2003 riding the hot hands of a couple of freshmen to the NCAA crown.
Now, in the form of the 2006 state Class AA football champion Auburn Maroons, we have found an equivalent in the high school ranks, a 37-day odyssey that just about trumps anything a writer of fiction could come up with.
Go back to the afternoon of Oct. 19. Tired and frustrated, the Maroons trudged from the classroom to the practice field on that rain-soaked Thursday without much enthusiasm, for good reason.
The Maroons had shown lots of spirit in a 4-3 regular season, but a three-way tie-breaker left them the odd team out of the Section III Class AA playoffs, with Corcoran (a team Auburn beat) and Cicero-North Syracuse allowed to move forward.
All that head coach Dave Moskov and his charges could do was fulfill the obligation of a pair of “crossover” games that carried no meaning, except for possible additions to the win column.
Obscurity was assured – or so everyone thought.
Out of nowhere, Auburn was informed that Corcoran used an ineligible fifth-year senior in two of its wins, a fact not discovered until the Cougars were 48 hours from meeting Henninger in the opening round of the AA playoffs.
As a result, Corcoran forfeited those games – and its playoff spot. Auburn was now in, and the mood in Maroon land turned from depression to jubilation. They now had four days to get ready for Henninger, which sure beat the alternative.
On to Oct. 23, a Monday night on Syracuse’s North Side. It appeared that the Maroons’ good fortune had amounted to naught, since Henninger was winning by 20 with less than nine minutes to play.
So of course the Maroons score 27 unanswered points in that brief remaining time to claim its first-ever sectional playoff game, stunning everyone in just the same way that CBA’s loss to Fayetteville-Manlius did three nights earlier.
That alone would have been an amazing story. But it just kept going.
With a short week of rest, the Maroons still held off F-M on the game’s final play in the semifinals at Cicero-North Syracuse, assuring that a massive Auburn contingent would go to the Carrier Dome for the sectional final against Rome Free Academy.
Sure, RFA had all the winning tradition built up for more than a century. But once Auburn struck for a couple of big plays early, it was over. The 42-14 margin showed everyone that, while the Maroons might have been lucky to get in, they were still good enough to take out anyone.
Back at CNS seven days later, Auburn disposed of Union-Endicott in the regional playoffs, forcing a long list of turnovers. And even in the hostile setting of Rochester’s PAETEC Park, the Maroons would fight off native son Marshall in the state semifinals.
To say that everyone in the city of Auburn was caught up in this fairy tale would be a profound understatement. The corny-script analogy reached its full peak with the fact that, to win the state AA championship, the Maroons would have to knock off defending state champion Monroe-Woodbury, winners of 25 in a row.
So now they were back in the Dome, on Moskov’s 11th wedding anniversary, in the same week where Auburn’s most beloved sports figure, long-time sportswriter Leo Pinckney, passed away. You can’t make this stuff up.
Naturally, the final exceeded all the other dramas. Monroe-Woodbury returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, but Auburn used two long pass plays and relentless defense to secure a 20-13 lead down the stretch.
Just to test out the nerves of every Auburn citizen, Quendel Ellison, the 2,000-yard man, had to fumble with less than two minutes left, and M-W just had to turn that into a tying touchdown to force overtime.
And in that OT, the Crusaders would score, but what kind of mysterious force pulled that extra point wide left? Fate, my friends, it was all fate.
Darnell Murphy then stepped on the field and delivered that perfect pump fake and throw to a wide-open Jeff Richardson in the end zone. It was 26-26. One extra point away.
And Matt Hoey hooked it wide, only to get roughed by M-W defenders. A second chance, just like the entire post-season run was a second chance.
To try and describe the emotions when Hoey’s second PAT sailed cleanly through the uprights is simply impossible, except to say that every Auburn fan in the Dome now could relate to Al Michaels in 1980 when he answered that rhetorical question about believing in miracles.
Auburn’s players celebrated on the field with that gold-plated state championship plaque, then carried that celebration back home, to share the joy with an entire city. True, this playoff journey covered just 37 days, but the memories of it – and the incredible fact that this fairy tale was real - will last a lifetime.