by Steven Zaitz
By Steven Zaitz
Many eyes of the Long Island football universe were focused on the South Shore last Saturday, March 27.
However, there was an important contest that took place on the North Shore, too. The Northport football Tigers were back in business and business was booming.
Booming with pad-popping tackles and the pounding of bass drums. Booming with explosive hits over the middle, running backs and quarterbacks thrown around like rag dolls and bellowing voices cheering from all corners of Tiger Stadium. A March day in 2021 time-warped to a typical October afternoon in any other year, as Northport lowered the boom on crosstown Huntington, 23-6.
After taking a week off due to pandemic protocols, the Tiger defense was as ferocious as ever, stifling and suffocating Huntington’s offense. Making matters worse for the Blue Devils, they lost All-State running back Nasir Youngblood to a foot injury early in the second half. He was held in check even before the injury, finishing with 31 quiet yards on eight carries.
The leader of this band of mayhem-making marauders is linebacker Anthony Canales. But could he possibly top his superlative performance against Connetquot from two weeks ago?
Sixteen total tackles? Ridiculous.
Four tackles for loss including a sack? Silly.
Add in two passes batted down and five or six bone-crunching hits and we are talking about quite an encore from Opening Day, and outstanding enough to be one of Newsday’s top players of Week 3.
“Anthony has great linebacker instincts, plain and simple,” said Head Coach Pat Campbell. “He knows how to fill a window and when he sees a gap that he can get through, he flies through that gap and gets there and makes plays.”
Canales, who celebrated Senior Day on this sun-splashed Saturday, doesn’t just put up gawdy numbers. He establishes and enforces an attitude on defense that makes an impression with the opposing team. For instance, early in the game Huntington receiver John Chirico came over the middle in an attempt to make a short reception. Canales separated the intended receiver not only from the ball, but from his mouth guard as well. The Northport side of the field hooted and hollered with delight and Chirico didn’t run that particular pass pattern for the rest of the day.
“He cleaned that kid up”, said Campbell. “The thing about Anthony is that when he gets there, he gets there with bad intentions.”
The entire defense has had plenty of bad intentions in both Tiger wins this year. It’s a hard-hitting and speedy bunch that is always on the attack, giving offenses absolutely no room to operate. Defensive Linemen Cole Ronan, Dan Lugo and Ryan Farrington were in the Devils’ backfield all day long, disrupting whatever Huntington tried to do.
“Our defensive line eats up blockers like crazy,” Canales said. “It makes it easier for me to run downhill and get the ball carrier. That’s what I love to do.”
They have allowed an average of 93 total yards in two contests and a grand total of six points. Those points scored on this day by the Blue Devils was a garbage time touchdown when the game was no longer in doubt.
The likeable linebacker had extra motivation as Huntington has always been an archrival of Northport, as the two schools sit five miles apart.
“We took this game personally,” Canales said. “There is no way we were going to let our crosstown rivals beat us, especially on Senior Day. No way!”
The Tiger offense, which was very run-heavy in the opening win against Connetquot, had a nicer balance to it against Huntington. Quarterback Conner Gallagher had six completions for 73 yards, including a super accurate rainbow to senior running back Rafe Carner for an 18-yard touchdown in the 1st quarter.
“We were practicing that play all week and we liked the matchup we had in that down and distance,” Gallagher said. “Once Rafe had a step on his defender, I tried to drop it in. Rafe made a great catch.”
“Conner had to make an adjustment because Rafe got knocked off his original route,” Campbell said. “It was a nice throw and a good, athletic play by Rafe.”
Gallagher had another touchdown on a quarterback sneak and Northport is 2-0. They have again cracked Newsday’s Top Ten Power Rankings and their next matchup is at Smithtown East, who got bullied by Bellport 46-14 on Saturday — but all is not roses for the Tigers. Starting Center Joe Keller-DelPrete suffered a knee injury in the third quarter and was replaced by Canales’ brother Andrew. Keller-DelPrete is one of the team leaders and when he went down the festive atmosphere of the afternoon became muted.
“He’s one of our big-time leaders, an energy guy, a vocal guy and he’s going to be hard to replace,” Campbell said. “But you have to be a ‘next-man-up’ type of crew and I think we are.”
Another issue the Tigers need to address is the fumbling of the football. They have lost six of them in their two games.
“We have some things we got to fix for sure,” Campbell said. “You don’t win a lot of football games turning the ball over as much as we have. It’s a lack of focus and it has to be our primary job – to take care of the football.”
So far, the defense has bailed them out of dicey situations caused by these turnovers. One of those defenders, sophomore Owen Johansen had eight tackles, including a safety. Huntington, who made it obvious that they were playing their first game of the year, sloppily snapped the ball over its punter’s head and Johansen tackled him in the Devil end zone.
“That was a big momentum shift for us,” Johansen said. “I think the tide really turned for us after that.”
Johansen’s not kidding. After his play made the score 16-0, senior Rocco Stola showed off one of the many tools he has in his football tool belt — his blazing speed.
He took the free kick 69 yards straight up the middle, blew past three or four white-shirted Blue Devils for a touchdown. There wasn’t a Huntington player within 15 yards of Stola when he crossed the goal line.
“Perfect blocking,” said Stola, who plays on all three units of the football team. “As I saw the kick coming towards me, I knew I had to score. I thought I was a bit late for a split second, but I ran my fastest, I saw the hole and I wasn’t going to let anyone catch me.”
“We all knew he was gone as soon as he touched that ball,” Canales said.
Rocco’s run closed the scoring for Northport at 23 and put a ribbon on this one, for all practical purposes.
Oh, and in that game on the South Shore, Sayville beat Floyd. But lest people forget, there are good football teams north of I-495 as well.