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Football: SWR toughness leads to SBU and another county championship game

Even amid the thick fog that hung eerily over Thomas Cutinella Memorial Field, Shoreham-Wading River’s toughness came through crystal clear.

From the opening kickoff to the final snap, it was there. It was seen in a hard-nosed running game that was relentless. It was evident by a stonewall defense that made life miserable for Miller Place’s offense.

And now the top-seeded Wildcats are returning to Stony Brook University for a Suffolk County Division IV football final.

SWR has long been known for its skill, speed and talent, but what may sometimes be forgotten in that mix is the team’s undoubted toughness. It has been as big an ingredient in the team’s success as anything else.

“Toughness is everything in football because, of course, you can have fast guys, you can have good linemen, but when it comes down to it, it’s mental and physical toughness,” said SWR middle linebacker/right guard Anthony Giordano.

Those qualities came through in a 43-6 pasting of No. 4 Miller Place Friday night in a semifinal in Shoreham. With strong running by halfback Max Barone and quarterback Dylan Zahn, who ran for three touchdowns each, SWR’s ground game accounted for 338 of the team’s 419 scrimmage yards.

As for toughness on the defensive side of the ball, SWR held Miller Place to 135 yards of offense, with help from an Aidan Clifford sack and a Ryan Herr interception.

SWR (9-1), winner of three straight divisional titles and six of the last seven, advances to a county final next Friday at Stony Brook University. It will face the winner of Saturday’s semifinal between Mount Sinai and Bayport-Blue Point.

Shoreham-Wading River’s Max Barone (29 carries, 168 yards) picks up hard yards while Miller Place’s Joe’ll Spagnuolo tries to pull him down. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)

“It means a lot senior year because when I was a freshman and a sophomore we were there and it meant a lot being there, but when you’re a senior, it just means that much more,” said Barone, one of SWR’s 10 seniors.

Appropriately, SWR was wearing its yellow jerseys with “TOMMY TOUGH” inscribed on the front of them in honor of Tom Cutinella, the SWR player who died in 2014. As usual, toughness was part of the game plan.

“Toughness is a staple of, you know, what we believe in, you know,” coach Aden Smith said. “Any time we step on the field we want to be the toughest team out there. So, I think we definitely set the tempo and set the tone and sent that message today.”

Friday’s game may be best remembered as Fog Bowl 2021. The teams essentially played in a cloud the entire game, making the players look like ghostly apparitions from a distance and posing a challenge for players and sideline photographers alike.

“We came down to the field and everyone was like, ‘Jesus,’ like we can’t believe it,” Zahn said. “You could barely see. Like even on the other side of field, like I’m trying to look at my coach and there’s so much fog I could barely see him.”

Barone raised his season total to 20 rushing TDs while trotting to 168 yards from 29 carries. He also ran in three two-point conversions, accounting for 21 points himself.

With Anthony Giordano on offense blocking for him, QB Dylan Zahn races through a hole for yardage. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)

The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Zahn had similar success, racking up 153 yards from 23 carries. He also completed 8 of 12 passes to five receivers for 81 yards.

Scotty Seymour wrangled his way up the middle for a 10-yard TD run and Miller Place’s only points, tying the score at 6-6 in the first quarter. SWR took control from there.

“We didn’t come all this way to just lose right now,” said Zahn.

SWR had defeated Miller Place, 27-21, in the second week of the season on this same field, so a competitive game was anticipated. Not by the Wildcats, though.

“It was just a statement game for us,” Barone said. “We knew that people were doubting us and we had to go out there and prove to them that we belong at Stony Brook.”

Zahn’s 6-yard run for the game’s final TD with 1 minute, 58 seconds left to play, illustrated that toughness as well as anything. It was a matter of sheer strength and willpower that enabled him to pull himself across the goal line with defenders hanging onto him.

“None of that would have happened, though, without the line, you know,” he said. “They made our way, made the holes and we got right through and that’s all them.”

That line consisted of James Provencher, Clifford, Giordano, Aidan Franks, Jake Fabian and Dylan Kiely.

“We’re a much better team than people think we are and we came out here and showed that today,” said Giordano.

He continued: “I want to get another championship with my team, the team I love, my senior year. You got to end it right.”

That toughness should help.