This wasn’t new to many of the Shoreham-Wading River High School football players. They had played in county and Long Island finals before. They knew that every play in a game like this could be critical. They knew that momentum can be a fleeting thing, and can swing without a moment’s notice.
So, with Mount Sinai holding a 14-13 lead and engineering an 11-play drive to start the third quarter, the Mustangs looked headed toward the end zone. Then one of the Mustangs lost his cool. A personal foul was whistled, pushing Mount Sinai 15 yards back, leaving the Mustangs facing a fourth-and-15 at the SWR 31-yard line.
That was just the break SWR needed. The rest of the Suffolk County Division IV final was all SWR. Jake Wilson sacked Brandon Ventarola on the next play. The Wildcats were off and running to their fifth county championship in six years and second in a row.
“Momentum is a powerful thing,” said Xavier Arline, who ran for three touchdowns and threw for another in SWR’s 35-14 redemption victory at Stony Brook University’s Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium.
SWR (10-1) has a good history in county finals, winning all five it has played in, including those in 2014, ’15, ’16 and ’18.
“Before the game I said, ‘Screw the Xs and Os, come out here and play ‘Tommy Tough’ football, and everything else will take care of itself,’ ” Arline said. “So we just believed in one another, and that’s the result.”
Mount Sinai (10-1), which is 2-8 in county finals, is responsible for SWR’s sole loss this season. That came Oct. 12, by a similar score, 35-21.
This time, on a raw afternoon with wind and rain, SWR seized momentum and pulled away after that personal foul. “It was really just, the game was over,” said SWR’s Dylan Blanco.
SWR scored on the next two possessions after that from a 38-yard keeper by Arline and Arline’s 26-yard dash from a shotgun snap down the right side for his third rushing TD of the game and 37th of the year.
“It’s typical ‘X’,” SWR’s Mike Casazza said. “You give him the ball, he’s going to make a play. That’s what we’ve seen the past four years. He’s a ridiculous athlete.”
The final dagger was self-inflicted damage on the second play of Mount Sinai’s next series. The Mustangs, from a snap on their own 14, fumbled the ball into their own end zone on a pitchout to the right. Blanco came up with it for his first career TD.
“That was kind of the hammer right there,” said Casazza, who had a TD catch, five tackles and three assists.
Blanco said a Mount Sinai player was bobbling the ball when he slid next to him. “I just tried to push it away and I ended up just stripping it from him and holding on for dear life,” said the defensive end.
SWR threw a new look at Mount Sinai, with Robert McGee, the St. Anthony’s transfer who joined the Wildcats for their fourth game this season, mixing in some snaps at quarterback with Arline.
Arline, a flashy runner who entered the game with 1,846 rushing yards, tops in Suffolk, according to Newsday, ran for 212 yards on 30 carries.
“That’s what he’s supposed to do,” SWR coach Aden Smith said. “That’s what’s supposed to happen. He is the best player in the county. There is no better.”
Arline also threw for 85 yards and his ninth TD pass of the year, a 47-yarder to Casazza, who broke a tackle on his way to the end zone on the game’s opening series.
Mount Sinai responded with a TD on its first possession, a 2-yard keeper by Ventarola.
Arline scored on a 2-yard quarterback sneak with 2 minutes, 20 seconds left in the second quarter, but Matt LoMonaco returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a TD and Joseph Balzano’s extra point put Mount Sinai ahead, 14-13.
“God tested us,” said Arline.
And, as the Wildcats have more often than not in recent years, they responded.
“We earned another week to keep playing,” said Blanco.
The Wildcats have a chance to claim a fourth Long Island title when they face Seaford (10-1) Saturday at Hofstra University.
This is the third county championship for some SWR players like Arline and Casazza.
“It feels great,” Arline said. “I mean, this is what we sacrificed our summers for. We’re not normal 17-, 18-year-old kids. We don’t do the normal stuff. We sacrifice ourselves, so when we see a result like this, it’s really great, but we’re not done here. We got to finish it out.”
Some timely momentum wouldn’t hurt.
Top photo caption: Shoreham-Wading River players and fans celebrate. (Credit: Daniel De Mato)