By ROB JONAS
BERNE – The rivalry between Albany County’s hilltowns (Berne, Knox and Westerlo) and the valley floor below (Voorheesville) has gone on for more than a century.
Yet, there have been relatively few opportunities for the high schools that represent those communities to battle each other in athletic competition because Voorheesville and Berne-Knox-Westerlo play in different leagues.
One of those opportunities came Saturday, Sept. 1, when Voorheesville’s football team traveled up the Helderberg Escarpment to face Helderberg Valley – the combined team of BKW and Duanesburg. As one might expect with such a rivalry, emotions ran high on both sides, which led to early mistakes on both sides.
“Neighboring schools, the same side [of the Class C divisions] – I’d say there was some community pride on the line,” said Voorheesville head coach Joe Sapienza.
“The first couple of drives, you could see … there was some eagerness on both sides,” said Helderberg Valley head coach Gary Morin.
Helderberg Valley hung around for most of the game, but long touchdown runs by quarterback Ian Owens and tailback Jake Palmer in the final 5:35 helped Voorheesville pull away for a 38-21 victory in Berne.
Owens had a huge day running and throwing the ball. The Voorheesville senior rushed for 285 yards and three touchdowns, and he added a scoring strike to Sam Wakely.
“I haven’t seen the stats yet, but I gotta say that’s gotta be one of the top performances in the Section this weekend,” said Sapienza.
Owens was also the victim of one of those early mistakes. Midway through the second quarter, Owens found a seam at Voorheesville’s 10-yard line and took off on a long run down the left sideline. He was in the clear and heading for a touchdown, but he turned his head for a moment and tripped over his own feet at the Helderberg Valley 10-yard line.
Fortunately for Owens, Palmer finished what he started. On the ensuing play from scrimmage, Palmer found another hole on the left side and scored on a 10-yard run to give the Blackbirds a 6-0 lead.
“We’re never going to let him live it down. Ten years from now, he’ll come back for his reunion, and we’ll remind him about that play,” Sapienza said with a chuckle.
The rest of the mistakes made in the first half were more serious. Both sides were called for numerous penalties, including false starts, holding and personal fouls.
Once both teams settled down, though, the game turned into a series of big plays. After setting up Palmer’s touchdown with his 80-yard run, Owens made up for his gaffe with a 73-yard scoring scamper on Voorheesville’s next possession to give the Blackbirds a 12-0 lead.
Helderberg Valley answered with a halfback option pass to receiver Jake Stahl, who hauled it in for a 56-yard touchdown. Helderberg Valley missed the extra point, leaving Voorheesville with a 12-6 lead.
Owens rebuilt the Blackbirds’ 12-point advantage before halftime with his 40-yard touchdown pass to Wakely. Helderberg Valley responded in the third quarter with a scoring drive capped by Charlie Grygas’ 2-yard touchdown run. The extra point was good, which trimmed Voorheesville’s lead to 18-13.
Owens dodged and weaved his way for a 5-yard touchdown scamper to cap the Blackbirds’ next drive, but Helderberg Valley’s defense stopped the two-point conversion attempt to stay within striking distance. After fumbling away a scoring opportunity early in the fourth quarter, Helderberg Valley redeemed itself following a Voorheesville miscue. Quarterback Xander Moore connected with receiver Jesse Waddell on a long touchdown pass and then threw a two-point conversion strike to Grygas to make it a 24-21 game.
Helderberg Valley attempted an onsides kick, but drew an illegal kick penalty when the ball bounced higher than six feet in the air. On the second onsides kick attempt, Voorheesville recovered the ball in Helderberg Valley territory. Owens scored two plays later to put the Blackbirds ahead 30-21.
Palmer sealed Voorheesville’s victory with one final big play. The senior took a handoff from Owens and raced 68 yards to the end zone with two minutes left in the fourth quarter. Palmer added a two-point conversion run to make the score 38-21.
Palmer’s final run pushed him over the 100-yard mark for the game, as he gained 131 yards for Voorheesville. But, it was Owens’ performance that pushed the Blackbirds over the top against their hilltown rivals.
“It wasn’t a matter of us trying to figure out how to stop [Owens],” said Morin. “We had something schemed to stop him, and we just failed to execute. They just kept getting sucked in.”
Jesse Waddell gained a combined total of 122 yards on the ground and through the air for Helderberg Valley. Stahl had six catches for 90 yards, including his second quarter touchdown reception on the halfback option.
“You gotta give them credit,” said Sapienza. “They’ve done a phenomenal job over there. They’ll make some noise in our [Class C South] division.”
For a photo gallery from the Voorheesville-Helderberg Valley game, click here.