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Football: In battle of run vs. pass, it’s the Panthers’ running game that ends SWR’s season

A mere 3.85 power points separated Shoreham-Wading River and Miller Place in the regular season as the two teams posted identical 4-3 records. And when the teams opened the season against each other in Week 1, a late field goal was the difference in a SWR victory.

So it was no surprise that Friday night’s playoff qualifying game at Thomas Cutinella Memorial Field in Shoreham would come down to the final possession.

One one side, the Panthers featured a dominant run game with the benefit of a strong offensive line. The Wildcats, whose identity has nearly always been centered on the ground game, instead featured an aerial attack led by quarterback Dylan Zahn.

In a battle of run vs. pass, it was the run that emerged victorious.

Miller Place running back Joe’ll Spagnuolo was unstoppable at times, scoring four touchdowns and totaling nearly 230 yards on the ground as the Panthers withstood a late SWR rally to win 35-28. The loss ends the Wildcats’ bid for a repeat county championship as they close out 2022 with a 4-4 record.

“It was a great game,” SWR coach Aden Smith. “A great high school football game.”

Miller Place advances to the Division IV semifinals against top-seeded and unbeaten Bayport-Blue Point next week.

After a scoreless first quarter, the fireworks were nonstop Friday night as both teams traded big blows. The Wildcats fell behind by two scores in the fourth quarter when Spagnuolo cruised into the end zone from two yards out for his final score, putting the Panthers ahead 35-21.

Will Hart hauls in a touchdown reception for SWR. (Credit: Bill Landon)

But the Wildcats quickly struck back with a touchdown of their own on just four plays as Zahn lofted a perfect 21-yard touchdown pass into the right corner of the end zone for Will Hart, who finished with two scores.

The Wildcats were back within one and got a the defensive stop they needed by forcing the Panthers to go three-and-out on their next possession. Junior Liam Taylor then blocked the punt, giving the Wildcats the ball at the Panthers’ 38-yard line and sending the Shoreham crowd into a frenzy.

The Wildcats got down to the 10-yard line, but on a 3rd-and-7, Miller Place senior Nicholas Oliva intercepted a pass in the end zone with 3:20 left.

SWR’s defense delivered again to force another punt and the Wildcats got the ball back for one final possession and just 1:33 on the clock, needing to go 77 yards for the tying score.

There would be no miracle comebacks, though, and after quickly advancing into Miller Place territory, the Wildcats missed on four straight pass plays to effectively end the game and their season.

SWR junior Ryan Wilson intercepts a pass. (Credit: Bill Landon)

Zahn was precise throughout the game, connecting on quick screens and slants and also on some deep shots. Six different receives hauled in receptions.

“He’s been the leader on our team,” Smith said. “He’s improved tremendously. He’s improved his accuracy, he’s always poised, he always had a strong arm. But now he’s delivering the ball consistently.”

Zahn threw a pair of touchdowns, including a 44-yard pass to Taylor in the second quarter, and also had a rushing touchdown in the third quarter that put the Wildcats ahead 21-14.

The game quickly turned after SWR took that lead. Miller Place answered with a four-play drive as Spagnuolo scored from six yards out. The Panthers quickly got the ball back in Wildcats’ territory and scored again to retake the lead.

The Panthers totaled 376 yards on the ground and attempted only two passes all game.

SWR junior Liam Kershis tried to evade the tackler. (Credit: Miller Place)

“They can run in between the tackles, they can put it on the perimeter,” Smith said. “Spagnuolo is a good runner so if he has a little seam, he can make somebody miss. He’s hard to contain.”

Smith said he’ll remember this group of seniors as a selfless group.

“They believed in the coaching staff, they believed in team, and family and unselfish play,” he said. “Several guys moved positions around and played in different positions. It was a great group of kids.”

The Wildcats gave fans plenty of highlights this year with some wild, high-scoring games in a competitive division this year that saw Kings Park drop down from Division III. Miller Place will now be aiming for its first county title since 2017.

The Wildcats had won the county title every other season beginning in 2014, including the abbreviated spring 2020 season.

The road to a title now runs through Bayport, as the Phantoms seek the program’s first county title since 1991.