When Sincere McDougal took Babylon’s opening handoff 57 yards to the house, Shoreham-Wading River knew that the Section XI Conference IV semifinal would be a dogfight.
Playing under the lights Friday night at Babylon High School, McDougal and quarterback Aiden Winters took turns scoring touchdowns for Babylon and though the Wildcats hung around, they had no real answer for the dual attack. Whether it was on the ground or through the air, McDougal and Winters looked to be taking Babylon to the Suffolk County championship. But to the Wildcats’ credit, they fought hard to the finish and ended up scoring 18 consecutive points in the fourth quarter to win 36-35 and earn a spot in the championship game.
Something just began to click for Shoreham-Wading River (8-2) in that fourth quarter. Trailing by 17 points, the Wildcat’s offensive scheme of option-style football, suddenly changed to more of a drop back and pass.
“They were playing zero coverage trying to stop the run,” Aden Smith said. “That left opportunities for us down the field and we took advantage.”
Kieran Clifford connected with Liam Kershis on a 39-yard touchdown pass to start the fourth quarter, cutting the deficit to 11 after a missed two-point conversion. After forcing a Babylon punt, Clifford again found a touchdown through the air, this time to Michael Iberger, which made the score 35-30 with six minutes left to play.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Wildcats kicked the ball out of bounds which was subsequently called for a penalty. Instead of taking the ball with great field position already because of the penalized yardage, Babylon (7-3) elected to have Shoreham-Wading River kick the ball again, to give McDougal a chance to potentially run it back. The next kick went right into the shifty, speedy receiver’s hands and you could hear groans from the Wildcats’ spectators.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” one spectator yelled. “Kick it to anyone but that guy.”
McDougal sprinted down the sideline but was met with Mike Casey, who dislodged the ball out of his hands.
“Instead of going for the tackle, I just punched at the ball,” Casey said. “I felt like he wasn’t holding it securely and I gave it my best whack.”
“We work on stripping the ball in key situations like that all the time in practice,” Smith added. “It was a game-changing play that made all the difference in the biggest game of the season.”
The ball bounced about and was recovered by the Wildcats to set up their game-winning drive. After a few running plays and a crucial penalty called against Babylon, the Wildcats were set up on the 22-yard line. Clifford released a pass down the sideline and Kershis corralled it, getting downed on the one-yard line.
“I initially had a flat route,” Kershis said. “But it turned into a wheel to make the linebacker miss. I saw that I had two steps on him and I was wide open.”
“Once I threw the ball, I knew he was going to come down with it,” Clifford added. “I have so much trust in him in a situation like that and I really thought he scored on it.”
Clifford would end the drive on a QB sneak from the 1-yard line which gave the Wildcats the lead by one point, 36-35. Four minutes remained on the clock.
Casey intercepted a Winters’ pass on the following possession and though the Wildcats tried to run the clock out, they were stopped on a 4th-and-1 attempt to give Babylon one last chance. But on 2nd down and 20, Winters let a ball fly across the field and Alex Kershis snatched it out of the air for an interception to end the game.
Clifford threw for 248 yards and four touchdowns in the victory. He also rushed for 82 yards and scored two touchdowns on the ground. Kershis has 146 yards receiving and caught two touchdowns, narrowly missing the third on the last scoring possession.
Babylon, the No. 2 seed in the conference, was supposed to win the game. The Wildcats were also without one of their best scoring threats and a mainstay at safety in Sean Casey only adding to the high task.
“When it comes to football you leave it on the field,” Kershis said. “Whatever you hear on the outside doesn’t matter. We had adversity all through practice this week. Injuries, you name it we had it. We had to change all our personnel. Everyone doubted us from the start of the season and we never gave up on eachother.”
Shoreham-Wading River will now take on No. 1 seed Bayport-Blue Point on Saturday at Stony Brook University for the Suffolk County championship. Casey, who is recovering from a stress fracture in his foot, is hoping to be back in the lineup. The Wildcats lost to Bayport-Blue Point, 35-21 during the regular season.
“Right now we’re going to enjoy this victory,” Smith said. “We’re going to enjoy this moment because it’s here right now and we’ll worry about Bayport come Monday. We know they’re there. Everyone is familiar with each other. Beating Bayport is going to be a tall task but I believe we’re up for the challenge.”