Area athletes help Long Island retake Empire Challenge title
By Bill Landon
After a New York City 30-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass, the team went for a two-point conversion to outright win its third straight Empire Challenge football game under Hofstra University’s Friday night lights, but Long Island’s James Lyons, of Sayville, batted away the two-point conversion pass in a 28-27 thriller.
Up to that point Westhampton running back Dylan Laube has been the center of all things Long Island offense June 15, powering his way to three touchdowns — accumulating 151 all-purpose yards. He was voted most outstanding player of the game.
He opened Long Island’s scoring running off left tackle on the opening play of the second quarter and punching into the end zone to help tie the game 7-all.
Miller Place’s Tyler Ammirato, Long Island’s defensive captain, called signals on the field in an attempt to contain an explosive NYC offensive attack. His plan ended up in a Long Island defensive stop to take over on downs, and Laube was back to work on offense. Farmingdale’s Bryan DeFelice made the extra-point kick following Laube’s second touchdown to put Long Island out front 14-7 with three minutes left in the third.
“It’s an awesome experience — you read the paper every week and you see all these guy’s names and to finally meet them and get to play with them,” Ammirato said. “I thought, ‘Our defensive stand right here will be the turning point of this game — we’ve got to get a stop right here,’ but our offense is [also very] talented, they’ll punch it in.”
After NYC retied the game, Harborfields wide receiver Gavin Buda ran a sideline route and grabbed a 39-yard pass from Northport quarterback Ryan Walsh to put Long Island in excellent field position.
Buda, the only athlete in history to be chosen for both the Empire Challenge and the Blue Chip Prospects Grand Slam Challenge baseball game earlier this month, said it was a fitting way to conclude his high school career.
“It’s sad, but this is one of the greatest games I’ve ever played in my life,” Buda said. “To meet all of these great superstars that I’ve played against and I’ve seen on the field, and to be friends with them now and to be their teammates, is just amazing experience that I’m going to remember for the rest of my life.”
Laube finished what Buda started for a 21-14 advantage to end the scoring for the third. A rare NYC miscue helped Westhampton’s Nola Quinlan pick off a pass and nearly return it for a touchdown before being forced out of bounds with 32 seconds left in the quarter. NYC’s defense was able to make a stop that forced Long Island to try for a 36-yard field goal attempt, which was blocked.
With just over eight minutes left NYC made it a new game 21-all, but Long Island let time tick off the clock on a long drive to three consecutive first downs before Oceanside wide receiver Derek Cruz’s old-school flea-flicker jump ball. Cruz faked continuing his run and tossed the ball back to quarterback Tommy Heuer, who waited for Massapequa wide receiver Owen Glascoe to break free.
Heuer hit Glascoe in the end zone for a 34-yard touchdown pass and DeFelice added his fourth extra-point kick for a 28-21 lead with 41 seconds left, which ended up being the game-winning point.
Ward Melville linebacker Zach Hobbes, who was instrumental in the Patriots’ rout of West Geneseein the state lacrosse championship the weekend prior, was euphoric taking part in his final football game.
“I can’t think of a better way to end my senior year,” Hobbes said. “Winning a state championship and then to play in front of 9,000 people for the last game of my varsity football career, and to get a win like that, it’s an unbelievable experience.”
With time running out NYC went hurry-up offense and hit three consecutive pass plays down the sideline, getting out of bounds each time to stop the clock and save what precious seconds remained. With five seconds left, NYC quarterback Mike Nicosia threw the Hail Mary to the left corner of the end zone, where he found Titus Leo, who made the catch as time expired.
“That was a crazy experience — that’s just how I expected the game to go,” Buda said. “I knew both teams would put up a fight and right when we scored that last touchdown I knew you could not count them out. We had to make a defensive stop, but they drove down; they’re a great team. Our defense came up with a humongous stop and that sealed the deal.”
Shoreham-Wading River’s Tyler McAuley was unable to play in the 23rd annual Empire Challenge football game. Ward Melville outside linebacker Thomas Kutchma and running back Nicholas Messina; Miller Place defensive end Matthew McNulty; and Northport quarterback Ryan Walsh were other area athletes that took part in the senior all-star game.