JOHN NEELY PHOTO | Wayne Harris of Center Moriches found the end zone on a six-yard run for the game's first score despite the efforts of Bishop McGann-Mercy's Pat Stepnoski.
What happens when friends coach against each other?
What else? A fight breaks out.
They had been in the same huddle before as teammates and on the same football sideline before as coaches, but Friday night marked a first for both Jeff Doroski and Steve Failla. For the first time, they faced each other on opposing sidelines as head coaches, Doroski of the Bishop McGann-Mercy Monarchs and Failla of the Center Moriches Red Devils.
The game must have prompted mixed emotions for coaches on both staffs. Failla was the best man at Doroski’s wedding and is the godfather to Doroski’s son. Not only that, but they were both teammates at Mercy, as was one of the Center Moriches assistant coaches, Craig Rupprecht. All three are Mercy Class of 1992 graduates. On top of all of that, Failla and Rupprecht are both former Monarchs coaches themselves.
And, as if that story line isn’t tangled enough, a McGann-Mercy assistant coach, Phil Lombardi, is a another former Mercy player who had served as a Center Moriches assistant coach for five years before coming to the Monarchs this year.
Finally, to add even more spice to the season-opening Suffolk County Division IV game at Center Moriches High School, it just happened to be Doroski’s debut as a varsity head coach.
“Me, Steve and Craig, we go back a long ways,” Doroski said. “Yeah, we’re close. We go to barbecues at each other’s house, and they’ll be at my daughter’s baptism in two weeks and stuff like that.”
No doubt, there will be some talk during that occasion about what happened on Friday night. Myles Bell ran for touchdowns on his first two carries as Center Moriches rolled, 32-14, spoiling Doroski’s debut. The game was interrupted for about 20 minutes when a fight broke out 4:22 into the third quarter. Coaches rushed on to the field to separate players. A game official took a fall during the flurry and was quickly helped to his feet by McGann-Mercy’s Pat Stepnoski. After order was restored, Jack Strnad of McGann-Mercy and Wayne Harris of Center Moriches were ejected. The ejections carry automatic one-game suspensions.
JOHN NEELY PHOTO | Bishop McGann-Mercy's Rudfil Paul Jr. swatted away a pass intended for Center Moriches' Mario Mayen in the end zone.
Stepnoski said he wasn’t sure what prompted the fists to fly.
“I just turned around, and there was a big group of everybody fighting,” he said. “It kept going and going and going. I didn’t know what was happening.”
Failla said: “I couldn’t tell you who hit who and how it started, but everyone’s got to walk away, and our guy certainly didn’t walk away. They got learn, it’s a selfish act in an unselfish game that’s very unforgiving.”
Similarly, Doroski voiced his disapproval of the fisticuffs.
“It’s just frustrations got out of hand,” he said. “You never want to see anything like that. We just reacted to something that we don’t need to react to. We’re better than that. We represent something else out here, and that’s not what we represent.”
Both teams will feel the absence of those players. Strnad is a starting guard and defensive end. Harris plays running back and linebacker.
In addition to Bell’s two touchdown runs, Harris and Patrick Teich both ran for Center Moriches touchdowns as well. Another Red Devils score came through the air, an 18-yard connection from Jeff Foster to Nuquan Mathis.
Bell wove and sped his way to 111 yards on 10 carries, including runs of five and 28 yards that brought him into the end zone.
“I try my hardest every game, and whatever God gives me, it is what it is,” he said.
A four-year varsity starter, Bell is an undoubted talent.
“Myles is a special athlete,” Failla said. “He can accelerate on a dime, and he’s got nice vision. It seems like he cuts so fluidly, his hips never move.”
McGann-Mercy has a back who can run well, too. Stepnoski scored both of McGann-Mercy’s touchdowns in addition to making a team-leading nine tackles and recovering a fumble.
The Monarchs fell behind by 19-0 in the opening 14:32, but didn’t quit. On the final play of the first half, Keith Schroeher (8 of 18, 120 yards) lofted a pass down the right sideline that Stepnoski ran under, collected and kept running until he reached the end zone, 78 yards away.
Stepnoski also brought the Monarchs their second touchdown in the third quarter when he burst through for a 32-yard scoring run on a fourth-and-three play. Drew Rajotte’s extra point cut Center Moriches’ lead to 26-14.
The bulk of McGann-Mercy’s offense came from Stepnoski’s three receptions, 98 of the team’s 159 yards of total offense. The Monarchs had difficulty moving the ball, generating only two first downs, 39 rushing yards and converting two of 11 third-down plays.
But the Monarchs showed fight (in more ways than one).
“We don’t give up,” Stepnoski said. “We fought all the way until the end, even though it was not the closest score in the world. We didn’t give up, and that was heartening to see.”
Failla said: “They were outgunned, and they kept fighting. Nobody told them that they were outgunned.”
For three hours, Doroski and Failla had to put their friendship aside and focus on the task at hand.
“You’re trying to win a football game, you know,” Doroski said. “We work with these kids all year long. You want what’s best for them, obviously. He’s doing what’s best for his kids, I’m trying to do what’s best for my kids, and we go from there.”
Now that this game is out of the way, Failla said, Doroski and him can “go back to being friends.”