By Bill Landon
The stinging loss in the Suffolk County championship game last fall left an open wound on every member of the Ward Melville football team, and the only effective medicine is redemption.
The 2016 season was history making, as the Patriots won three straight games to propel them to the county title game for the first time in 29 years. Trailing William Floyd by a touchdown, the team marched down the field only to be turned away in the red zone in the final minute of the contest.
“Obviously the kids want to get back there again, and these guys this season think they have something to prove,” Ward Melville head coach Chris Boltrek said. “They want to show we didn’t just get there because of last year’s seniors, but that they were a big part of it as well.”
Ward Melville is the No. 5 seed in Division I heading into this season, with William Floyd taking the No. 1 spot. Lindenhurst, Longwood and Connetquot are also in the mix, but Boltrek said the Patriots won’t take any team lightly.
“They have a chip on their shoulder going into this season,” the head coach said of his players. “These kids put in the work in the off-season, they have the mentality that nothing is given to you — you have to go out and earn it every year.”
Senior defensive end and offensive tackle Jimmy Small said reaching the county title game is something he won’t soon forget, taking that experience and applying it to games this year in the hopes of feeling the intensity and enthusiasm again.
“Me and the rest of the guys from last year — we got a taste of playing in front of all those people, that excitement and the whole town having their focus on us, and that hasn’t happened in a long time for football,” the co-captain said.
He said he thinks his team has the right tools to get back to the championship game and take home the title this time around.
“I think by far our brightest spot is our front seven on defense,” he said. “We have a ton of returning starters, but I think the question mark is our special teams, which was a big part of our game.”
Despite the loss of kick returner John Corpac, Small said the Patriots have two kids even faster than the Stony Brook University commit.
“If everything works out, I think we’ll be even better in that aspect,” he said.
Senior running back Nick Messina, a three-year varsity player, reflected on the amount of work that goes into reaching the championship round.
“Just to reach that goal last year — the people coming back know what it takes to get there and it makes us want it so much more,” the co-captain said. “I think we’re strongest on our offensive and defensive line, but we’re going to have to work on our defensive secondary where we have a lot of new players.”
Senior co-captain Thomas Kutchma said to prove to other teams that last season wasn’t a fluke, and show they aren’t out of gas just yet, the Patriots have their goals set even higher this time.
“If we can do what we’re capable of doing we could win a Long Island championship this year,” the guard and defensive tackle said. “We think about that loss every day in practice and we give it 100 percent. We love the sport of football and we want to take advantage of it before it’s over.”
Ward Melville kicks off the season with a 6:30 p.m. home game against Central Islip Sept. 1. The Patriots will travel to Connetquot Sept. 8 for the second game of the year. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.