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Marauders host Hillbillies in 127th Dunkirk-Fredonia football game

Rivals meet in Dunkirk tonight

Dunkirk quarterback Phil Messina runs the ball into the endzone during a game in Dunkirk earlier this season. OBSERVER File Photo.

Tonight, two teams coming off losses meet in a non-league football game at Dunkirk High School. Normally, that would not warrant the attention of most of Northern Chautauqua County, but as anyone on either side of this epic rivalry will tell you, this game means just a little bit more.

The Dunkirk Marauders host the Fredonia Hillbillies in the latest installment of the long-standing rivalry tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Dunkirk High School.

“No matter what, it’s Dunkirk-Fredonia. This is a special game for everybody,” said Dunkirk coach Mike Sarratori. “There is so much pride within the two communities, from the teachers to the kids and the parents. It means a great deal.”

As if a Dunkirk-Fredonia rivalry game didn’t have enough hype surrounding it, this year is both Senior Night and Homecoming for Dunkirk High School.

“I don’t know how much more can be added to a Dunkirk-Fredonia game in terms of excitement,” said Sarratori. “… but it can’t hurt to get our side even more excited. … It’s going to be a special night, a really fun, special night.”

Fredonia quarterback Nick Whitfield scrambles during a game in Westfield against the Chautauqua Lake/Westfield/Brocton Thunderbirds earlier this year. OBSERVER File Photo.

Last season, Dunkirk and Fredonia clashed in the Orange Bowl in one of the most important regular season meetings over a century-long rivalry. Fredonia came away on top in a 35-6 blowout, putting an end in back-to-back seasons the hopes of a perfect season for the Dunkirk Marauders. It was the Hillbillies who finished with an undefeated season and a Class B3 division title.

“It means a lot to both of the communities,” said Fredonia coach Greg Sherlock. “The thing I want to do is win a game, that’s all I care about, but it means a lot to the kids and that’s what this is about. … The kids are so excited. You can tell it’s Dunkirk this week. It’s a really exciting time.”

After the perfect regular season the Hillbillies punctuated on this same stage a year ago, Fredonia has had a rude awakening in its move to the Class C South division. Fredonia comes into tonight’s contest off a 20-6 loss to Portville at the Orange Bowl last week. The Hillbillies have lost two of their last three games, only broken up by a game-winning touchdown pass on the last play of the game in Westfield against the Chautauqua Lake/Westfield/Brocton Thunderbirds. Fredonia lost 42-0 at home to Southwestern a week prior to that, and also lost in Week 2 at Allegany-Limestone.

When Fredonia (3-3) has won, it has been dramatically. Two of the three wins for the Hillbillies on the year have been by fourth quarter comebacks, first a Week 3 victory at Cassadaga Valley on a Saturday afternoon, 18-14, after quarterback Nick Whitfield found tight end Jake Skinner on a deep ball down the right sideline to set up a game-winning touchdown run by Dom Gullo. Fredonia one-upped the dramatic Week 3 win in Week 5, as Whitfield delivered a miraculous throw to Grayson Krzyzanowicz in the endzone as time expired to win 28-23.

“Our kids are calm and patient. They know if they’re in a close game, they can pull it out,” said Sherlock.

For Fredonia, a team who lost 19 players from a year ago and is starting underclassmen in nearly half of the team’s lineup, tonight is an opportunity to build upon a rivalry trend. After back-to-back wins over Dunkirk, the Hillbillies have won 18 of the last 20 meetings, with Dunkirk victories in 2015 and 2016 representing the only wins for the Marauders since the turn of the century.

Though it has been nearly all Fredonia in recent memory, Dunkirk still leads the all-time series 65-50-11, dating back to 1901. The Marauders hope to turn back the clock tonight and re-establish the bragging rights in this cross-town rivalry with a victory on Dunkirk’s home field.

Overall this season, Dunkirk (4-2) has been a bit confusing at times when looking at the results. A big reason why is the inexperience of the young Marauders thrust into action this season.

While multiple players have gone down with injuries during the season, the Marauders were already shorthanded before the year began. After a large senior class moved on after last season, Dunkirk also lost three more projected starters on both sides of the ball. Former Dunkirk two-way starters Tywon Wright and Conrad Thomas attracted a lot of attention when both transferred to what Sarratori jokingly called “The University of Southwestern.” In addition, Rocky Radcliffe, who would have been counted on heavily on both offense and defense, moved back to California.

Dunkirk’s season has been defined just as much by who isn’t there as by who is, but the players who have put on the maroon and white this year have stepped up. The inconsistency of Dunkirk has been an attribute of its inexperience, not its effort.

“Our kids are always trying to put their best foot forward,” said Sarratori. “We’ve been inconsistent because we’re so young across the board at so many different positions. When you’re so young, you’re going to be inconsistent, but the effort has always been there. Our kids have always been consistent with their effort and the work they put in.”

“I think Dunkirk’s done a great job this year,” said Sherlock. “They’ve had to deal with a lot with all they’ve lost this year, but they always seem to find someone more and more athletic to fill in a spot. … I think this has been a very good year for Dunkirk, and Mike (Sarratori) and assistant coach Bob (Krenzer) deserve a lot of credit.”

Dunkirk began the year with a 7-6 win at Olean, which was one of three wins this season with one touchdown allowed or less. The Marauders also shut out Medina on the road and throttled Maryvale — a playoff team a year ago — by a score of 36-0. Dunkirk has also managed to score more than 30 points three times this season, including 36 points on the road last week to Iroquois, in a 38-36 loss, which Sarratori called “the best offensive game we’ve had in over a year.”

Despite the shootout last week, Dunkirk’s inconsistency this year has been highlighted by its “all or nothing” offense. While Dunkirk scored more than 30 points in half of the games this season, the other half of the games have featured only one Dunkirk touchdown in each game. The focal point of tonight’s game in terms of offense, however, will be which unit can spend more time on the field.

“We can’t have them have long drives on us,” said Sarratori. “We need to get them off the field and give our defense a break. What it’s going to come down to is who gets the other team’s offense off the field.”

A key within that focal point will be the play of the offensive and defensive lines.

“Line play is going to be key,” said Sherlock. “Dunkirk is huge. They move people on both sides of the ball. That’s going to be a big thing to watch.”

Dunkirk has shown many different colors through the first five weeks, but which is the true color of the Marauders? It could be the team that struggles to score offensively, or it could be the team that surpasses 30 points with relative ease. Dunkirk could be the team to hold its opponent to six points or less, like it has in half of the games, or it could be the team that allows 38 points in a shootout like it did last week. Tonight presents a big stage for the Marauders to make a statement as to which team it wants to be remembered for in front of the home Dunkirk crowd.

What will be obvious tonight is that this game is more than a non-league game to end the regular season between a 4-2 Dunkirk and a 3-3 Fredonia. This is the game that will be added to the list of the 126 games before it between these two epic rivals, and in many ways, this game will be the one that defines the season for both programs more than any other game will.

Follow along for updates on Twitter @bradencarmen and @TheObserverNY.

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