The two Shoreham-Wading River High School football players, Chris Rosati and Dalten Stalzer, had never played in a game quite like this before, with players who were so big, players who were so fast and players who were so talented.
“There are just so many great players,” Rosati said. “Not one of them is bad.”
And one of them was otherworldly on Tuesday night.
The Empire Challenge had not seen a quarterback like Sharif Harris-Legree before.
Harris-Legree, the fourth in a series of Legree brothers and cousins to have played for New York City, brought the Legree family record in the Empire Challenge to 4-0 with a stunning performance, snapping Long Island’s five-game win streak. The QB from Grand Street Campus drew “ooohs” and “ahhhs” with his strong arm. He was unstoppable, basically willing his team to a wild 39-34 triumph at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium.
Long Island leads the series, 12-7, but Tuesday was the city’s night.
“All New York City,” Harris-Legree said. “I love it.”
No quarterback in the 21-year history of the game had ever thrown for 200 yards before. Harris-Legree had 239 passing yards by halftime. By the game’s end, he had 371 yards from 24-of-33 passing. He threw for three touchdowns, ran for another (he had 39 rushing yards) and even caught a 21-yard pass from Aaron Grant (Erasmus Hall) after handing off to him.
Harris-Legree was the game’s unquestioned MVP well before he engineered a game-winning drive that culminated with him floating a 19-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Hannah (Lincoln) with 22 seconds left to play.
“He was a tremendous player,” said Shoreham-Wading River’s Matt Millheiser, who was on the Long Island coaching staff. “We did our best. I think at times we bottled him up well, and at other times he was just a little too much for us to handle.”
Stalzer played right guard and Rosati cornerback. In the past three years, five Wildcats have appeared in the game, which involves the top 50 senior players from the island and the city.
“This is great,” said Rosati, who will play for Widener University (Pennsylvania). “All my life I’ve been watching this game as a kid and I finally got the opportunity to play in it and I had fun.”
Rosati assisted on two tackles and the 6-foot, 240-pound Stalzer, who will play for Hartwick College, acquitted himself well against larger linemen.
“Nothing I’ve ever been in” can compare to this, Stalzer said. He added, “It kind of reminded me of the county championship game … with guys that really wanted to win and they weren’t going to take no for an answer.”
Harris-Legree surely didn’t. He took all of New York City’s snaps. Second-string quarterback Antonio Cotton did not play because he reportedly missed practices.
Harris-Legree threw first-half touchdown passes to Adeola Oni (Port Richmond) and Raheem Wilson (Cardinal Hayes), the former catching a zipped pass with no time left in the second quarter to give New York City its first lead at 20-14. That go-ahead touchdown was set up by an impressive 47-yard connection up the middle with Wilson.
“He would just throw the ball right on the spot,” Rosati said. “You think you’re on the kid, but he just finds a seam, and it’s just tough to defend.”
Harris-Legree snapped a 27-27 tie with 5:20 left in the fourth quarter, taking a shotgun snap and then leaping over the goal line. Sal Henrique’s extra-point attempt was blocked by Joe Saladino (Newfield).
That looked like it would come back to haunt New York City when Long Island moved in front, 34-33, after Michael Catanese (Carey) threw a 12-yard touchdown pass that Infinite Tucker (Huntington) came down with and Dylan Burns (Plainedge) kicked the extra point with 1:46 to go.
Catanese was named the Player of the Game for his efforts. He went 10 of 19 for 163 yards.
The game had its share of razzle-dazzle, including a hook-and-ladder play that brought Long Island a touchdown early in the third quarter. On a fourth-and-12 play, Ryan Klemm (Newfield) found Mike Elardo (Syosset) for a five-yard completion before Elardo then lateralled to Jude Innocent (Roosevelt), who raced 17 yards down the left sideline for the score.
The Empire Challenge’s chairman emeritus, Boomer Esiason, said the game was “without a doubt, the best one ever.”
The game set a record for the most combined points. The old team passing record of 310 yards, set last year by New York City, was also crushed.
As Stalzer sees it, playing in the Empire Challenge with a teammate is great way to cap a high school career. He said, “We’ve been playing football all of our lives together, so it’s good that we get one last game together.”
Photo caption: Hofstra University hosted the 21st annual Empire Challenge between New York City and Long Island on Tuesday night. (Credit: Garret Meade)