Just call him Johnny-on-the-spot.
In his first high school varsity football start on Saturday, Jake Meeker showed an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time.
Players can contribute to a team in a number of ways. Meeker did so by bringing Shoreham-Wading River not one, not two, but three fumble recoveries. Two of them led to touchdowns as three-time defending Long Island champion Shoreham ran off to a 32-7 season-opening victory at Bayport-Blue Point High School.
Meeker, a 5-foot-11, 210-pound junior who played sparingly last season, started at middle linebacker and played on special teams. His impact on the Suffolk County Division IV game was immediate. The opening kickoff by SWR’s Tyler McAuley bounced off the chest of the Bayport return man. Meeker was first to the ball, giving SWR possession at the Bayport 30-yard line.
“My teammates flew down to the ball, made them fumble, and I was in the right place at the right time,” he said. “We were pumped up that we got the ball right off the bat.”
Six plays later, SWR was up 6-0, courtesy of the first of three first-half touchdown runs by Kyle Boden. The senior running back, also making his first varsity start, had a big day himself, running for 179 yards on 36 carries.
Before the quarter was over, Meeker came up with the ball a second time on a fumble off a reception.
It wasn’t until the fourth quarter when Meeker picked up his third takeaway from a fumbled punt return.
“An underclassman like that stepping up is just huge for us,” Boden said. “Just because you’re a junior doesn’t mean that you can’t make plays. He’s a great football player and he’s going to have a huge role for us this year.”
SWR coach Matt Millheiser, who could not recall one of his players making three fumble recoveries in one game before, said: “We preach find [your way] to the football for many reasons. You know, people think it’s just tackling, but no, when things go wrong, when there’s a ball on the ground, the more bodies headed in that direction, the more likely you are to come up with it. It’s something we practice a lot and I think today we were able to capitalize on those mistakes. They could have fumbled four or five times and gotten the ball back, so it’s not a given that when it goes on the ground that we’re going to get it.”
The turnover battle was heavily slanted in SWR’s favor. The Wildcats benefitted from six Bayport turnovers while committing one themselves. Boden and Ryan Mullahey also came up with fumbles for SWR while teammate Kyle Lutz made an interception.
“I think the turnovers made a difference,” Millheiser said. “It turned the tide for us.”
Speedy sophomore Xavier Arline made his first start at quarterback for SWR and ran for two touchdowns and 96 yards on 16 carries. He put the ball in the air six times, completing two passes for 12 yards.
SWR outgained the Phantoms in total offense, 304-143.
SWR had built a 25-0 lead before Bayport got on the scoreboard with 49 seconds left in the second quarter. Vincent Grazidei shook off a couple of tacklers on his 26-yard TD run.
Most of Bayport’s offense came from the passing arm of Luke Schartner (10-for-20, 106 yards). Logan Jones caught five of his passes for 59 yards.
Millheiser said he was “very impressed” with the way Boden ran. “I thought he ran tough,” the coach said. “He’s not going to hit the home run like Chris Gray or Chris Rosati, where they get in that hole and then they’re gone … but I think he does do a better job of putting his shoulder down and grinding it out.”
Boden said he was thankful for the push up front from the offensive line of Daniel Curtin, Liam Mahoney, Mike Casazza, Matt Zahn and James Mirabell.
The road for a Long Island four-peat is a long one, but this was a first step in that direction for SWR.
“Like any game, you know, there’s positives and there’s negatives,” Millheiser said. “That’s why we get on the film and there’s obviously things that we’re going to have to fix. Every year you have a new team and you got to figure out what their strengths are and what they do.”
There’s no question what Meeker does. He has a nose for the ball. Just ask the Phantoms.
Photo caption: Shoreham-Wading River’s Jake Meeker collects a loose ball off the opening kickoff for the first of his three fumble recoveries. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)