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'ROSS STRONG' Salamanca captures first sectional title since 2001

Photo by Matt Tyree

Chad Bartoszek stood in the middle of Highmark Stadium on Friday afternoon, trying to sort out his emotions after his Salamanca football team won the Section VI Class C title with a 36-23 victory over Medina. It wasn’t easy. “I’m blown away,” Bartoszek said. “I’m trying to figure out how to respond emotionally here. There’s a lot to this. It’s been a tough year for us. We’ve got some other things that went on this year that made this special.”

He paused, his voice breaking. Two months had passed since his former Warriors teammate Darren Ross, a star athlete and beloved member of the Salamanca community, had died of brain cancer at the age of 43. The memory is still fresh. “This game is for Darren,” Bartoszek said after Salamanca won its first sectional title since 2001. He’s the ultimate warrior. There was something special in our team. There was something special in Jaxson (Ross, Darren’s son). This one’s for him. "I’ve been waiting to say that all year. I’m just so proud. I’m so happy we got to represent what Ross Strong means.” With hundreds of Salamanca fans roaring from the stands at Highmark, Bartoszek's second-seeded squad channeled the strength and skill of Warriors past, making a succession of big plays to defeat No. 1 seed Medina in an entertaining "C' final. It was fitting that some of the biggest moments came from senior backup quarterback Jaxson Ross, who splits the job with Maddox Isaac and came up with some huge plays when Salamanca was holding off Medina in the second half.

Ross threw for 176 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another. Late in the third quarter, soon after Isaac left with an injury on a botched extra point, Ross scored on a 4-yard run to give Salamanca a 30-16 lead. After Medina scored on three plays to get to within seven, Ross threaded a pass down the middle of the field for senior Lucas Brown, who split two defenders and raced 49 yards for a crucial insurance touchdown -- his second of the day. That pretty much sealed it. Ross said he felt his late father’s presence on the Bills field, as he has all season. Odd how he and Isaac each had a TD running and passing in the game, same as they had in the game three days after Darren’s death in mid-September.

“We all played for him,” Jaxson said of his dad. "He wasn’t here to witness it, but I know he’s watching. He’s guided me along the way. This is all for him.” It was also for the loyal Salamanca community, which had waited 22 years for another sectional title. The Warriors (9-2) will meet the Section V champ (either LeRoy or Attica/Alexander) in the Far West Regionals at noon next Saturday at Williamsville South. Salamanca won numerous sectional titles in the glory days under Joe Sanfilippo and George Whitcher, including two appearances in the Bills stadium. It meant the world for Bartoszek, who an all-stater for Salamanca in the 1990s, to get them back for the first time in 22 years. “It’s everything,” said Bartoszek, in his fifth year as Salamanca head coach. “This is home. This is where I grew up, where my kids go. This community is special, and just getting this for them, it means everything.” Salamanca is still looking for that elusive first state championship. Bartoszek pointed out that LeRoy was often an obstacle in the past. But the Warriors appear to be hitting their stride, and maybe they’re destined for the Dome. “That’s obviously our main goal,” Ross said. “This is a milestone, but we don’t want to be finished. No one wants this to be finished.”

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