Northport Tigers triumph using class, commitment and character

Northport Tigers triumph using class, commitment and character

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This past week, the Northport High School football team showed the world that their credo — Class, Commitment, and Character — isn’t just a trio of noble-sounding words.

They embodied it.

Two Saturdays ago, the Tigers not only lost a game to top-ranked Bellport and a share of first place in Suffolk County Division II, but also the services of their all-star quarterback, linebacker, and field general on both sides of the ball, senior Owen Johansen. He is out for the season with a broken ankle.

Johansen was injured early in the game against the Clippers when their star player, Donte Phillips, ripped Johansen down by his facemask and the Northport quarterback got his ankle rolled over and broken by Phillips, who never let go of the mask throughout the course of the play. It was an over-the-top, dirty tackle. 

Phillips was called for unnecessary roughness, and Bellport lost 15 yards. But Northport lost its heart, soul and leader as Johansen’s brilliant high school football career was now over.

As the misery of that Saturday afternoon faded into the next week, there was not a single member of the Tiger football family that outwardly expressed any malice towards Phillips or Bellport.  There was no complaint filed with Section XI about the flagrancy of the foul or the severity of the injury. Instead, there was a lot of talk of ‘it’s football, injuries happen, and we have to move on.’

That’s class — and it starts from the top.

“Owen is a fantastic football player,” said Northport Head Coach Pat Campbell. “He’s a phenomenal quarterback, probably one of the best defensive players I have ever coached, and he’s a great teammate and leader. It [stinks] that he got hurt, but it’s a team game. Guys are going to have to step up.”

Senior Macklin O’Brien took over as quarterback in Bellport and showed flashes of competence. He directed a long, first-half drive that he finished himself with a 14-yard touchdown scramble. But the Tigers would lose, 21-7, and next up on their schedule on Oct. 22 were the always powerful and well-coached West Islip Lions, who like the Tigers have a record of 4-2.

“Mack has been taking snaps with the first team in practice since August and he works his butt off,” Campbell said. “Nobody on the outside has really ever gotten the chance to see it, but everybody in our locker room knows that he’s a great quarterback.”

It was now time for O’Brien to prove it in a game against a quality opponent.

He would start the day spectacularly, engineering a 75-yard touchdown drive that included two nice throws and an off-schedule scramble for 15 yards that was reminiscent of his fallen friend and teammate Johansen.

“I’ve been working hard in practice behind Owen all year,” said O’Brien. “It’s just my nature to compete and try hard for my teammates and myself. I thought I played okay today, but now I just have to get better.”

Christian Raio would finish the drive with a four-yard touchdown run on his only carry of the day, and Northport would lead 7-0 with six minutes left in the first quarter and would take 7-6 lead into halftime. Johansen was on the Tiger sideline in a boot and waved his crutches around whenever the Tigers and O’Brien did well. In turn, the team wore a #8 decal on their helmets, Johansen’s number, to honor him. This is Tiger class now blended with a commitment to one another.

Lest we forget, the West Islip football program is as successful as there is on Long Island. They are also mixed up in this Conference II dogfight and needed this game just as much as Northport.

To start the second half, they ripped off a 16 play, 85-yard drive for a touchdown. Bruising running back Chris Piropato had 29 of those 85 yards, and he capped it off with a two-yard blast up the middle. West Islip took the lead for the first time, burning most of the third quarter and wresting momentum in doing so.

On Senior Day for Northport, the stands were packed, the state champion field hockey team had won a playoff game earlier in the day, and the 300-piece marching band, sounded like it was 600 during their halftime performance. But the stadium was now stunned into silence.

With a Tiger loss, West Islip would leapfrog Northport and at 4-3, the Tigers would be scrambling just to make the playoffs with only a road game against West Babylon left on its schedule.  The Tigers would need to answer.

Tiger running back Michael Campoli would do just that. He ran off right tackle and followed a devastating lead block from fullback/linebacker Thomas Kraus. Fifty-seven yards later and 57 seconds after they lost the lead, Campoli gave it right back to them. It was now 14-13 Northport.

“I just try to help the team any way I can,” said the junior Campoli, who also contributes on defense and special team. “Kraus made a great block, and I saw a lot of green in front of me. He was the reason I scored on the play.”

“Lead blocking is always a fun time for me,” Kraus said. “I had a feeling we were going to get Campoli in the end zone on that play and we did.”

Michael Raio would get in the end zone again for the Tigers from four yards out with 5:29 left in the game. The senior halfback electrified the crowd with a 28-yard run and two plays later, would close the deal and give Northport a 20-13 lead. The party was on.

It was Raio’s third rushing TD of the year and after the Tigers got the ball back on downs, was looking for his fourth with the ball deep in West Islip territory.  He ran behind Tiger tight end Andrew Miller and had enough yardage for a first down to seal the win. But linebacker Jordan Fileti got a desperation right hand on the ball as Raio ran by him. Lion Safety Dan Klein fell on it at the West Islip 10-yard line and down by only seven points, the Lions had new life in a now dead-silent stadium.

“I was sick to my stomach when I lost that ball,” Raio said, “One guy (Fileti) grabbed my arm as he was falling, and it came out. I should have had both hands on it.”

All Raio could do now was watch and root for his teammates on defense, as West Islip was 90 yards from tying the game with 2:15 remaining. 

They would get a huge chunk of that 90 when Lion quarterback Patrick Keenan ran for 17 yards to start the drive and things started to get dicey for Northport. The Lions had all their timeouts remaining.

But Northport defensive lineman Justin Macke sacked Keenan on the next play and Tim Cleary, who is the de facto leader of the Tiger defense in Johansen’s absence, ended the threat with a leaping interception at the Tiger five-yard line. The Tigers had themselves an exhilarating and perhaps season-saving win, and they celebrated like it.

“That was a statement game,” said the senior linebacker Cleary, who had 13 tackles on the day. “We made some adjustments in the second half on defense, and we stopped them when we needed to.”

So, in the first game in the post-Johansen era, the Tigers rolled up 256 yards of offense, overcame a second half deficit — however brief — and withstood a late charge after a costly turnover to gut out a victory in a very important game.

This was a character win in the truest sense, and it was a great time for all three of Northport football’s principles to not just exist as painted words on a locker room wall, but really have them come to life.