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Dalton Gardner carries Hillbillies to 45-16 blowout of Marauders

Fredonia takes down Dunkirk

Fredonia’s Dalton Gardner (3) breaks free for a run in Friday’s rivalry game at Dunkirk High School. Gardner powered the Hillbillies to a dominant victory over rival Dunkirk as he tallied five total touchdowns, highlighted by 230 rushing yards in just the second quarter alone. OBSERVER Photo by Ron Szot.

For years in the village of Fredonia, the Gardner name has been known for its excellence in wrestling. But on Friday night in Dunkirk, Fredonia’s Dalton Gardner proved he’s quite the football player, too.

On the biggest stage of the year, Gardner dealt blow after blow, leading to a stunning knockout of the Dunkirk Marauders. The Fredonia Hillbillies defeated the Dunkirk Marauders in the 127th rivalry football showdown by a score of 45-16 on Friday night at Dunkirk High School.

“I’m a wrestler, but honestly there’s nothing that compares to Friday night lights. I wanted to give everything I had to play against this team one last time,” said Gardner. “Wrestling is the greatest sport to prepare you, especially for football, but for life in general. I’ve been through a lot tougher things in terms of weight-cutting or wrestling matches where this seems like nothing. … In wrestling it’s one on one, if you’re down, it’s up to you to come back to win that match. That’s how I felt today, I took it personal. I took it into my own hands when I got the ball.”

Gardner didn’t waste any time at all before he made his presence known. On just the third play from scrimmage, Gardner took a counter run 60 yards for the game’s first touchdown. After a two-point conversion, Fredonia led 8-0.

The story for Dunkirk (4-3) was the big plays by Fredonia. Coming into the game, Dunkirk coach Mike Sarratori said the key to the game was to get the Fredonia (4-3) offense off the field quickly, and while that ended up being the case, it was not in the way the Marauders had hoped. Fredonia did not have a single scoring drive longer than three plays in the game, but managed six touchdowns within the scoring drive’s first three plays.

Dunkirk’s Christian Ortiz (30) fights through the Fredonia defense toward the endzone during Friday’s rivalry football game at Dunkirk High School. Ortiz had a big night on the ground in a loss to Fredonia, 45-16. OBSERVER Photo by Ron Szot.

“We didn’t make them work for their touchdowns,” said Sarratori after Friday’s game. “… but I will say our defense didn’t lose the game. I’m not going to say one thing or another is the reason we lost. Yes, we definitely could’ve tackled better. We definitely could have stayed with our assignments better, but they played better than us tonight. We definitely would like to have it back, but they deserved to beat us tonight.”

Dunkirk tied the score at 8-all in the second quarter on a 5-yard run by Christian Ortiz. But just as any star wrestler would, Gardner and the rest of the Hillbillies got off the mat and delivered another crippling blow. Gardner took the first play from scrimmage on the ensuing drive 55 yards for the score and a 14-8 lead.

Scoring on the first play must have been a nice feeling for Gardner, as he did the exact same thing twice more. Gardner had touchdown carries of 70 yards — after Ortiz had a 79-yard touchdown carry of his own — to reclaim the Fredonia lead, then a 74-yard touchdown run on the next Fredonia play, where Gardner toyed with the Dunkirk defender in the open field before evading the tackle and crossing the goal-line again.

At the half, Fredonia led 30-16 thanks to 290 yards and four touchdowns rushing by Gardner. He finished the game with 307 rushing yards with four rushing touchdowns, along with an 81-yard receiving touchdown to mark his fifth score of the day.

“He’s probably one of the toughest – if not the toughest — kids on our team,” said Sherlock. “He’s all about doing whatever he’s told to do. That’s Dalton Gardner. I’m not surprised by his performance.”

Dunkirk’s coach Mike Sarratori (far left) and quarterback Phil Messina (middle left) are joined by Fredonia’s Dalton Gardner (middle right) and Fredonia coach Greg Sherlock (far right) as Messina and Gardner are honored as the character athletes of the game. OBSERVER Photo by Braden Carmen.

The impact of Fredonia’s offensive line was not unnoticed by Sherlock or Gardner.

“That line was unreal. The offensive line, the things they were able to do was pretty amazing,” said Sherlock. “I just thought they did an outstanding job. … That’s going to be something I show for years on how we do things.”

“It felt like there was an extra boost to my step today to be able to do it, but nothing I did today would’ve happened if I didn’t have the offensive line that gave me those holes,” said Gardner. “It’s easy for a back to make cuts like me. I’m just a quick, speedy, shifty kid. If I don’t get wrapped up at the line of scrimmage, that’s the result that usually happens. 95 percent of it was them. I was just doing the work after them.”

It appeared as if Dunkirk would cut the deficit in half right after the intermission, but after a drive that lasted one second shy of nine full minutes to start the second half, Fredonia stopped a pass to the endzone by backup quarterback Alex Ahlstrom, who was inserted into the game after Dunkirk starter Phil Messina was injured on the prior play.

“I think it would have definitely helped our situation,” said Sarratori on if it would have made a difference had Messina been in the game for that play. “We’d have an experienced quarterback instead of an inexperienced sophomore — who was trying his heart out — but we could’ve done a few more different plays there.”

On the ensuing drive, Gardner delivered the final knockout blow, as he took a screen pass 81 yards to the house for a 37-16 advantage to close out the third quarter. The Hillbillies finished off the night with a 35-yard touchdown pass from Nick Whitfield to Troy Lanski on the first play for the Hillbillies in the final period.

“I would have to say this is my proudest moment,” said Fredonia coach Greg Sherlock. “It’s because it’s family, it really is. When you involve yourself, not only with the kids but with these families, it makes it that much more special. This game is probably number one on my list.”

Moving forward, each team will look to continue its season in postseason play, separate from the Section VI playoffs, which neither team was able to qualify for this season. Postseason matchups will be announced later this weekend.

“We need to regroup quick. We will find out more this weekend,” said Sarratori. “We need to regroup, but as long as the kids want to play, we’ll be alright.”

After such a dominant showing on a big stage, Friday night left Coach Sherlock regretful that his team was unable to qualify for the playoffs.

“It makes me question everything I’ve done all year,” said Sherlock. “I think I’ve let the kids down with our league games, so that’s something I’ll have to live with. … I don’t think we’ve ever put four quarters together like we did today.”

This year’s game will go down in the history books like the 126 Dunkirk-Fredonia games before it did. But when people look back on October 18, 2019, the 127th Dunkirk-Fredonia game will be remembered as the “Dalton Gardner game,” where a Fredonia star, known more for his time on the wrestling mats before that night, made his mark on the football field in a way no one in attendance will ever forget.

“In all-time memories, all of my Dunkirk-Fredonia football games are up there,” said Gardner. “I’ve got to say this is my favorite game I’ve ever played.”

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