KIRTLAND — Fourth and one at their own 44.
Conventional wisdom would say “kick it.”
But on that night, Lakeside was trying to get back in a game against a Kirtland program that hadn’t lost since the 2018 state title game and was scoring points just about every time they touched the football.
Coach Buzz Edwards knew his team had to find a way to get that yard and keep the offense on the field.
J’Shon Sanders seemed the likely candidate to power the ball across the line to make.
Instead, Edwards called for quarterback Garettte Siebeneck to pitch it out to AJ Raffa.
Raffa, the champion of the weight room at Lakeside, for his 500-pound squat and his 4.3 speed in the 40-yard dash. Raffa, who typically plays on defense as a linebacker, was now called upon to get a huge yard.
Upon taking the pitch, he stumbled a bit on the soggy track left from a 90-minute weather delay, then he was hit by a Hornets defender about a yard behind the line of scrimmage. But then that work in the weight room took over. He’d shed another tackler or two, then outrace the others; 56 yards down the sideline for a Lakeside score.
“When I was running down that sideline, all I had in my head was how much everyone was cheering me on and how much I had everyone with me,” Raffa said. “Touchdowns are touchdowns, and I celebrated with every one of my teammates in the end zone.”
The play cut the Kirtland lead to 42-21 early in the third quarter and kept hope alive that the Dragons could make a game of it against the Division V powerhouse.
In the end, they could not, as the Hornets scored three more touchdowns, making the final score 63-28.
There were certainly some positives though for Lakeside, Raffa being one of them.
Filling in for Elijah Jefferson, who was sidelined for health concerns, Raffa led the Dragons ground attack with 129 yards on 19 carries. He had two receptions as well for 21 yards.
On top of that, he played about every snap on defense as well.
“He’s 100% now,” Edwards said. “He’s a strong kid and he runs the ball hard. He’s hard to take down one on one. When you’re strong, like AJ is, bouncing off tackles and stuff becomes easy.”
Raffa would have likely been the marquee back on any Dragons team over the past ten years or so. This season, with Sanders and the arrival of Jefferson from Louisiana, the situation has dictated that he spend most of the snaps on the defensive side of the ball.
He said he’ll embrace whatever role he is asked to fill.
“I’ve taken on the linebacker position since my freshman year,” he said. “I want to just keep doing whatever my team needs me to do.”
And if that means running the football, he’ll do that as well.
“Coach wants to give me the ball, I’ll take it and do what I can with it,” he said. “I did well [Friday night] and I plan to keep doing well. But that doesn’t take anything away from J’Shon and Elijah, they’re both really talented and I just want everyone to know I’m right there with them.”
Coming into the game, Kirtland had given up only 32 points in their previous 6 games. Lakeside nearly matched that with 28. Aside from Raffa, Sanders had 73 yards on the ground, and Siebenck connected with seven different receivers for 195, including a 45-yard scoring strike to Malachai Matlock.
The loss drops the Dragons to 3-4 with Orange and Edgewood remaining on the schedule. They are currently ranked 14th in Region V with the top 16 advancing to the postseason.
As they boarded the bus going back on I-90 East, Raffa said the team believes they can play with anyone.
“We have so much confidence,” he said. “They gave up 34 points the whole year and we put 28 up on them. That just shows how much our offense can score on such a good defense and how much we can help each other out.”