GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Jeff Pittman of Riverhead coming down with an interception for Long Island late in the second quarter.
EMPIRE CHALLENGE | LONG ISLAND 40, NEW YORK CITY 8
Jeff Pittman and Nick Ross played their final football game for Riverhead in December, but it wasn’t their last high school game. That occurred on a rainy Tuesday night when the two seniors played for Long Island in the Empire Challenge all-star game. But not even that game marked the end of their playing days. The two Blue Waves have collegiate careers to look forward to — at the same college.
It wasn’t a grand plan, but Pittman and Ross will both play football for Becker College, an NCAA Division III team in Worcester, Mass., this fall. Not only that, but a third Riverhead player, defensive tackle Kyle McCabe, will join them.
“I’m looking forward to moving to the next level with my two boys, who I played four years with,” Ross said. “Now I have four new years with them.”
Another future Becker player, free safety Davin Collins (New Utrecht), also played in Tuesday’s game, although he wore a red New York City uniform.
Before moving on to college, Pittman and Ross had some final business to attend to, making sure their final high school game was a triumphant one. With their help on defense, Long Island handed New York City a 40-8 pasting before 9,869 fans at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium.
Uniondale running back William Stanback became the first player in the 18-year history of the Empire Challenge to score four touchdowns in the game and he received the most valuable player award. Stanback also tied a record with his three rushing touchdowns.
GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Riverhead’s Nick Ross, fending off a block by New York City’s Chad Vickers, played defensive end for the first time in two years.
Stanback, who is headed to Central Florida, finished with a Long Island record 138 yards from 12 carries, 87 of those yards coming on a dazzling 87-yard dash in the fourth quarter. That run tied for the second-longest run in Empire Challenge history.
Stanback’s first touchdown was a memorable one. Brian McKean threw a sideline pass to Tom Zenker, who then lateralled to Stanback, who ran the ball in for an 18-yard scoring connection that made the score 19-0 with 12 minutes 38 seconds left in the second quarter.
Pittman and Ross did their part as Long Island limited New York City to 162 yards in total offense and caused six turnovers. One of those was an interception by Pittman. The cornerback won a jump ball late in the second quarter against New York City’s Malique Belfort at the Long Island 2-yard line, and returned the ball 22 yards.
“I just had a better position on him, and I just grabbed it, and I wasn’t letting go,” said Pittman, who also had five tackles. “I’m just proud to leave this game on a good note. I have to admit, in practices I wasn’t doing so good, but I know … when it’s game time I show up.”
Ross made an impact, too. Although he played middle linebacker and offensive tackle for Suffolk County Division II champion Riverhead, Ross played defensive end on Tuesday for the first time in two years. Long Island needed a speed rusher off the edge, and Ross responded with three tackles and a sack, which he followed up by blowing a kiss to the crowd.
“I was a little rusty at first, but when I got the hang of it, I was back to my old ways,” said Ross.
Long Island put its stamp on the game from the beginning. Its two quarterbacks, A. J. Otranto and McKean, both ran for touchdowns on the team’s first two possessions.
New York City’s starting quarterback, Matthew Domina, left the game on a stretcher in the first quarter. It was reported that he had fractured his ankle while being tackled.
Long Island took a 26-0 lead by the time the third quarter was 5:45 old. Its running game collected 219 rushing yards to 16 for New York City.
New York City’s only touchdown came with 8:17 left in the third quarter when Miami-bound Augustus Edwards took the ball in from five yards out.
Kendall Thomas (Jefferson), who returned a kickoff 75 yards in the third quarter for New York City, was named the player of the game.
Long Island won the Empire Challenge for the third straight year and is 10-6 all-time against New York City.
Ross said he had never before played in a game of such a high caliber. “College atmosphere, college speed, talent,” he said. “These boys here are no joke.”
Riverhead had another connection to the game besides the two players it sent. The Blue Waves’ coach, Leif Shay, was on the Long Island coaching staff.
Ross, who plans to frame his No. 90 Long Island jersey, said he was speechless, but honored to be a part of the experience.
Pittman, referring to Long Island’s eight practices over two weeks, had some words, though.
“You know it’s grueling,” he said. “Nobody wants to wake up early in the morning and go to practice … but you have to get it done. It was worth it, leaving your high school career on the field with a victory on a big stage like this.”