He reminded them how their first season they had won only a single game but in three years since, had posted winning records and three consecutive trips to the Class D Section II playoffs.
“They’re helping us get to where we need to be,” Culligan said. “We’re consistently winning now and these seven seniors were key. Their leadership has been unbelievable.”
In Saturday’s Class D semifinal game, Whitehall’s seniors got the team off to a fast start, scoring on their first two possessions, but for every punch they threw, Rensselaer countered.
On their first possession, the Railroaders drove 60 yards in eight plays, punctuated by Paul Hanna’s 13-yard touchdown run, to take an early 6-0 advantage. But the Rams countered with a 77-yard pass from Justin Forgea to Tyler Oliver to tie the game.
Four minutes later, Josh Hoagland gave the Railroaders an eight-point lead as he scored on a seven-yard run with conversion, but the Rams answered again when Forgea escaped the pocket and scampered 31 yards to tie the game. On its next possession, Rensselaer’s Seth Butler took a handoff 84 yards for a touchdown and the Rams never looked back.
“They’re a good team,” Culligan said. “They’re 7-1 for a reason. We thought we’d be able to run the ball and control the clock but they stopped us when they needed to and their kids made some big plays. They did what they had to do to win.”
Trailing 22-14 early in the second quarter, Whitehall had a chance to seize momentum after a pass interference penalty gave them a first down at the six-yard line. But the Rams stopped Hoagland on fourth and goal from the one yard and took the ensuing drive 99 yards for a touchdown and a 29-14 lead at halftime.
Rensselaer scored on both of its possessions in the third quarter and was able to hold Whitehall in check.
“I thought we played very well,” said Rensselaer head coach Joel Preston, who guided his team to the Class D “super bowl” for the fifth consecutive season. “We started a little slow defensively and they were able to hurt us in the flats. Their quarterback did a nice job of getting outside the pocket and hit the guys in the flats but we went to man and that hurt them.”
Justin Hoagland finished the game with 140 passing yards but Rensselaer was able to hold Whitehall’s ground-and-pound offense in check. Hanna finished with 43 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries and Josh Hoagland finished with 133 yards and 3 touchdowns on 42 carries. The Railroaders, who have broken off big runs in bunches this season, only had three runs longer than 10 yards.
“We have good team speed and tackle well. Hoagland is a great player and if you don’t tackle well you won’t beat them but we got three or four hats on the ball every play,” Preston said.
Despite the score, the game was as physical as any Whitehall played all season. Several players on both teams were nicked up and left with injuries.
“We had some significant injuries but that’s this group of kids, they fought all the way to the end,” Culligan said.
Many of the players were visibly emotional following the game as they realized their season and their varsity careers had come to an end.
“It was a hell of a four years, but we just didn’t get over the hump,” said Hoagland, who finished the season with 1,496 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns.
“It’s so amazing to be part of the program, to have turned it around. It used to be top-notch and we got it going again. It feels great to be part of it,” said Paxton DeLorme. “You couldn’t have done it with a better group of guys.”
His head coach agreed.
“This is one of the funniest groups of kids to be around that I’ve had in 19 years of coaching,” Culligan said. “This was an unbelievable group of kids. It’s hard to lose a group like this.”