In such a short high school football season, every divisional game carries significant meaning. One loss can make it substantially more difficult to qualify for sectional play — especially in Class B North, where only four of nine teams advance.
But this week, the significance is heightened even more. Medina and Albion enter Week 6 with matching 2-2 records in Class B North, tied for third place with Bennett and Lew-Port. Albion travels to face Lew-Port tonight, while Medina plays Bennett at All High Stadium tomorrow afternoon.
As the coaches would tell you, playoff football doesn't begin at the end of the regular season. It begins now, as was discussed at Albion's weekly team meeting on Monday.
"At the meeting this week, the message was that from here until the end, we're going to treat this like playoff football," Albion head coach Tony Osburn said. "With our execution, our intensity, and our tone, everything needs to look and sound like playoff football."
Albion is riding a two-game winning streak into tonight's matchup with Lew-Port, having defeated Newfane and Maryvale the last two weeks by sizable margins. The Purple Eagles had preceded this streak with consecutive losses to Burgard and Cheektowaga, the division's top two teams.
After falling in a lopsided home defeat to Burgard, the Purple Eagles fell behind quickly at Cheektowaga but battled back in the second half to keep the score respectable, 34-20. Osburn said the team turned a corner in that second half — a perspective that has been backed up by the results since.
"Against Burgard, we did the little things wrong, and we played the worst game we possibly could have played," Osburn said. "But in the second half against Cheektowaga, we started moving the ball and executing on offense, and the other phases followed suit. It was a long bus ride home, but we were excited with the way we played, and we carried the momentum to practice."
Osburn pointed to the offensive line in particular as the catalyst that sparked the team's quick turnaround, anchored by Dylan Burkhardt, Mike Eldred, Jon Trembley, Steven Stauss, Robert June and tight end Gary Moore. The group has paved the way for running back Ed Wolfe to pile up some monster numbers, including over 270 yards rushing and four touchdowns last week against Maryvale.
Last year, Albion finished 2-6 and wasn't in nearly the same position it is now, where the team can control its own destiny and qualify for sectional play with two wins. There is surely a lot of football left to be played, but for Osburn, this year's position is surely preferred.
"Being back in the hunt, it's certainly a good thing," Osburn said. "This is why we do it, to control our own destiny. It's playoff football, and hopefully our guys will understand the impact of that."
As for Medina, the team is looking to quickly regroup after a disappointing 31-30 Homecoming loss to Lew-Port, which followed a second-half collapse the week prior at Burgard.
So coach Eric Valley and the Mustangs are turning back to fundamentals this week, focusing on the blocking, tackling and ball-security aspects of the game that almost disappeared against Lew-Port, where the team fell behind 19-0 early on a muffed kickoff and two fumbles.
"Some of those are freak things, but some are avoidable," Valley said. "They just seemed to happen all at once, and they put as at a huge disadvantage, in a big hole that we never got all the way out of. The kids seemed like they were still in the homecoming parade for the first quarter, instead of on the field, and ultimately those mistakes cost us."
As is usually the case, Valley points to the offensive line as a key this week, and he is happy for the return of O-lineman Andrew Nichols, who had been sidelined since week two due to injury. Valley sees a lot of similarities between Burgard and Bennett, as two fast and physical teams that can mix the pass and run to generate big plays.
Bennett's only two losses in the section came to Burgard and Cheektowaga, the two undefeated teams in Class B North play, and the Mustangs expect a daunting challenge that must be combatted with sound fundamental play.
Medina quarterback Jason Hellwig threw a late interception at the goal line against Lew-Port, and the junior signal-caller wanted to take responsibility for what he deemed miscommunication on the play.
Hellwig said the team has been practicing fast this week to prepare for Bennett, and hopes to limit mistakes as much as possible when the teams square off at All High.
"We're going to try and eliminate mistakes, take care of the ball better and go hard all practice, every practice," Hellwig said. "We lined up incorrectly a few times last week on offense and defense, and we want to fix that."
Last year, Medina finished a tiebreaker away from a spot in sectionals, and the Mustangs won two postseason games in the Chuck Funke Bowl to finish 6-3 overall.
The postseason wins were nice, but the team has its collective eye on sectionals this time around.
Valley recollects a sectional loss to East Aurora some seven years ago (at Lew-Port's field, ironically) as the most painful defeat during his time at the Medina helm. He would certainly love for a chance to get back to that stage, albeit with a different final result.
Still, for Valley and the Mustangs, it all starts tomorrow afternoon.
"We're always playing to win obviously, but it's such a short season, and every game affects the next," Valley said. "Our goal is sectionals. It was nice to finish with a couple of wins last year, but we want to be in the sectionals."