BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Postseason play provides the Bennett football team an avenue to move forward from the wins, losses, forfeitures and grievances that have ended past playoff runs, and defined their season so far.
“Forget what happened in the past,” coach Steve McDuffie told the Tigers this week, as they prepare for Friday night’s Section VI Class AA semifinal at Orchard Park. “Forget all the adversity that we’ve been through.”
Bennett was in position to be the top seed in AA and host its playoff opener at All-High Stadium. That was before section officials determined the Tigers used an ineligible player in the first six games of the season and had to forfeit four division wins, in accordance with NYSPHSAA regulations.
Buffalo Public Schools officials disputed the ruling’s fairness, and community members were outraged at the latest in a series of recent misfortunes for the Bennett football program.
But with a sectional title defense and pursuit of a state championship still in play, the Tigers are embracing the opportunity presented to them.
“Right now, where we stand at in time, let’s be grateful for what we have and let’s appreciate each other,” McDuffie said. “We have to always appreciate and savor the moment we are in. We only have one opportunity in or lifetime to walk the path we are on. Let’s walk the path together. And let’s give it our all.”
Still, having four emphatic victories taken away by Section VI over what BPS officials described as a “clerical error” stoked the competitive fire to reassert local dominance from a team with five players holding college scholarship offers and another half dozen receiving Division I interest.
“That just put us back in our element really,” said Rashard Perry, a two-way force on the line who has committed to Syracuse University. “Everybody counting us out. We take that, and it fuels us up.”
“It’s motivation,” said Jayden Lewis, a University at Buffalo recruit. “We don’t speak on it. We just come out and play. Stay disciplined. Stay dedicated. We’ve been through a lot. But we know where we can go if we keep working hard.”
While one assistant coach told the Tigers to carry “a Pringles can of chips” on their shoulders into the postseason, McDuffie said they haven’t had many team discussions about the forfeitures.
“That’s the big elephant in the room,” McDuffie said. “The kids talk about it. And they are motivated by it. But I want our kids to go out there and play our style of football. I don’t want them too high, and I don’t want them too low. I want them even-keeled and focused. We have to understand our success lies in preparation and handling what’s in front of us.”
Focusing on what’s ahead also helps the Tigers avoid looking back at their 52-10 win at Orchard Park in September, or the 70-20 squash of the Quakers in last year’s playoffs, and risk being overconfident on Friday night.
“We know they have improved,” Perry said. “That was just one game in the regular season. We know they are coming out for blood now. We expect a dogfight.”
With a win at Orchard Park on Friday night, Bennett would move on to next week’s sectional title game at Highmark Stadium, likely against the Lancaster team it beat in last year’s final, and again last month, right before the ineligible player ruling came down.
At that juncture, while the final record may reflect the forfeits, the final destination will not.
Jonah Bronstein joined the WIVB squad in 2022 as a digital sports reporter. The Buffalonian has covered the Bills, Sabres, Bandits, Bisons, colleges, high schools and other notable sporting events in Western New York since 2005, for publications including The Associated Press, The Buffalo News, and Niagara Gazette. Read more of his work here.