DIVISION IV QUARTERFINALS | PANTHERS 27, WILDCATS 2
In years to come, when Matt Millheiser hopes to find his teams on the winning end of playoff games, the second-year Shoreham-Wading River coach expects to tell the story of the 2011-12 seniors.
“I said to the seniors, I could have no better group to help try to turn this program around,” Millheiser said after a 27-2 loss at Babylon Friday night in the first round of the Division IV playoffs. “Last year at 0-8 they gave us their heart and soul and they never quit. And the same thing this year. Things were better and they gave us everything they had.”
The playoffs may have seemed like a far-fetched idea coming into this season as the Wildcats were seeded near the bottom of Division IV. But from Week 1, thanks to the leadership of the seniors who persevered through a muddy road as juniors, the Wildcats quickly proved they were a team not to be taken lightly.
At 6-2 in the regular season, the Wildcats earned their first playoff berth since 2008. That meant a date with fourth-seeded Babylon, on the road, against a team that has made trips to the county championship game a birthright.
The No. 5 Wildcats (6-3) made huge strides this year, but not enough to go toe-to-toe with the Panthers (7-2) for 48 minutes. After withstanding an early scare from Shoreham, Babylon wore down the Wildcats with an explosive third quarter to put the game away and advance to the semifinals next week. Babylon stands one win away from playing for its ninth county title since 1997.
“To come in here, in this type of environment and play the way they did, I couldn’t be prouder,” Millheiser said. “They gave us everything they had and then some.”
The Wildcats’ defense played much improved compared to a week earlier against Mount Sinai. Shoreham forced Babylon into long drives and didn’t allow big plays. But the defense ultimately had trouble getting the stops on short yardage third downs to give the ball back to the offense.
“Against Glenn and Mount Sinai we broke down on some of our responsibilities and they broke some big plays,” Millheiser said. “So we really focused on making sure we were in the right spots and we made the tackles when they were there.”
The biggest play the Wildcats gave up was a 25-yard pass play. They gave up four runs of 10 yards or more, the longest of which went for 20 by Eric Schweitzer.
Still, it wasn’t enough to contain the Panthers completely. When the Panthers saw an opportunity to seize the game in the third quarter, they pounced on it. Leading 13-2 at halftime, the Panthers opened the second half with a nine-play, 52-yard scoring drive that made it a three-possession game.
The score came right on the heels of Babylon’s touchdown just before the end of the second quarter. The Wildcats trailed 6-2 and were set to get the ball back after stopping Babylon on a fourth down. But the Wildcats muffed the punt and Babylon recovered at its own 47-yard line.
The Panthers marched for the touchdown on 11 plays, capped by a 1-yard run from Nahari Jenkins. He finished with two touchdowns.
“I think our defense had a great effort after that, but a short field they just grinded it out and were able to punch it in,” Millheiser said.
The Wildcats turned it over on their next possession with an interception and Babylon capitalized with another touchdown.
Shoreham’s only score came on a safety in the second quarter. Babylon halfback Frankie Mankiewicz had the ball ripped out of his grasp by Chris Mahoney at around the 25-yard line. The ball went spiraling backward and as the players scrambled to get a hand on it, it bounced out of the end zone.
The Wildcats got the two points and the ball back, but went three-and-out on their next possession.
Shoreham played the game without starting guard/middle linebacker Mike Savino. He tore his MCL last week against Mount Sinai. The Wildcats often pull their guards out on run plays and like to go behind Savino, which seriously hampered their running attack.
“It hurts a lot,” Millheiser said. “Not to take anything away from Babylon, they played a tremendous game, but having him would have helped a lot.”
Millheiser said had hoped that Savino could be cleared to at least be able to go onto the field for a play to allow his captain and three-year starter to experience a playoff game. But it wasn’t meant to be.
Shoreham’s rushing attack never gained any momentum. Quarterback Kevin Kelley completed five passes through the air, three of which went to Mahoney. Fullback Joe Longo caught two passes. The Wildcats were held without a touchdown for the first time this season.
Looking to ahead to net year and beyond, Millheiser hopes the team can take the necessary strides to move into the upper echelon of the division.
“Just keep working at it,” he said. “Getting the numbers, keeping the athletes involved, making it fun. Everything that we love about football and why we coach, give that to the kids and that’s the difference. If they’re enjoying it and having fun, good things will happen.”