The memory of past playoff heartaches began to creep into the mind of West Islip coach Steve Mileti. Two years ago it was a four-point loss at home against Newfield, a game the Lions led late in the fourth quarter.
Three years ago, after an undefeated regular season, the Lions watched in disbelief as West Babylon scored a touchdown as time expired to upset the No. 1 seed.
“You hate to look back, but I’ve been in so many playoff games that we’ve lost within the last minute,” Mileti said. “And you’re like, could this be happening again?”
Here the Lions were again, this time against Riverhead, again as the favorite, again hanging onto a slim fourth-quarter lead.
One point separated the teams as West Islip took over with 10:16 left in the fourth quarter, in desperate need of a momentum-swinging drive to put the Blue Waves away. In a game that had been all about defense, the Lions stripped things down the basics. For them, that means handing the ball to their bruising 5-foot-10, 200-pound back, Mike Lombardi.
“Give the ball to Bo, we call him,” Mileti said.
Lombardi carried six times on an 11-play drive for the Lions, barreling through the Riverhead line and dragging defenders along the way. His six-yard touchdown run with 4:21 left was enough to seal a 14-6 victory for West Islip, giving the Lions their first playoff victory since 2008.
“It’s been a hell of a drought,” Mileti said.
For the Blue Waves, the No. 6 seed in Division II, the loss represented their first time finishing the season short of the Big 4 since 2011. Riverhead ended the season as it began with a loss at West Islip to close out the 2015 season with a 4-5 overall record.
West Islip, the No. 3 seed with a 7-2 overall record now, will advance to play No. 2 Half Hollow Hills West in a semifinal matchup next weekend.
“I told our guys, I’m proud of the way they fought today,” said Riverhead coach Leif Shay. “Their effort was tremendous. They’re Riverhead football players. They take a lot of pride in that mantra.”
Both teams struggled to move the ball all game. Trailing 7-0 early in the fourth quarter, the Blue Waves finally got the kind of break they needed to get back into the game. West Islip punt returner Sean O’Gara mishandled a punt inside his own 10-yard line and Riverhead’s Tim Mullane was there to pounce on it.
The game-changing turnover set up the Blue Waves first and goal at the West Islip 7. Aided by a key third down pass interference penalty, the Blue Waves found the end zone when quarterback Tristan Falisi threw to the left side for Ryun Moore. The touchdown with 10:24 left brought the Blue Waves back within one, but they couldn’t tie it after the extra point was blocked.
It was a career day for Moore, making his second straight start at wide receiver. He hauled in eight receptions for 108 yards. He also had a first-half interception.
“Ryun, when he gives effort, he’s as good as anybody on the field,” Shay said.
The Blue Waves relied heavily on the passing attack against the bigger Lions. West Islip junior lineman Tim Mullane, at 6-foot-4, 265, presented a mismatch all game that required the Blue Waves to send a double team.
Falisi threw the ball a career-high 28 times. He completed 15 of those passes for 132 yards.
The Blue Waves finished the game with 67 total rushing yards. Marcus Reid carried 13 times for 35 yards.
“We had to throw to set up the run,” Shay said.
Lombardi carried the ball only six times in the first half, a strategy the Blue Waves were more than happy to see.
“They were trying to be cute,” Shay said. “Then they realized they had to pound it.”
Mileti didn’t seem to disagree.
“I think we kind of overthought it a little bit,” he said. “We probably should have handed the ball a little more.”
Lombardi finished with 119 yards on 19 carries; 89 of those yards came in the second half.
The first half featured a heavy dose of punting from both teams. The Lions picked up only one first down on their first six possessions, resulting in five punts and an interception.
That finally changed late in the second quarter after taking over on the Blue Waves’ 47-yard line. A seven-play drive ended with quarterback Conor Smith scoring on a keeper from one yard out with 58 seconds left. The extra point made it 7-0.
Smith set up the touchdown with a miraculous play on third down to keep the drive alive. He was chased out of the pocket and scrambling in the backfield trying to elude defenders when he heaved the ball down field to a wide open Lombardi. He dragged a defender a few yards after the reception down to the 1.
“[Riverhead] improved immensely since the first time we’ve seen them,” Mileti said. “We knew it was going to be a tough, grueling game. It came down the fourth quarter.”
And this time, the Lions emerged winners.
Photo Caption: The Riverhead Defense stops Conor Smith of West Islip. (Credit: Daniel De Mato)