Northport wins in overtime playoff thriller
When a guy makes a costly error on the baseball diamond and comes up to bat in the ninth inning and gets a big hit to win the game, the broadcaster will invariably say that baseball is a game of redeeming features.
We don’t hear that phrase used in football very much.
Northport senior defensive back Nick Valenti found out on Saturday that the gridiron also can be a place for redemption.
With a minute left in the third quarter of the Tigers opening round playoff game against Connetquot, Valenti was burned in man-to-man coverage for an 80-yard touchdown by Thunderbird wide receiver Tommy Malvagno. It cut the Tiger lead to 28-21 and sent an inconsolable Valenti to his bench to stew.
“I was pretty upset about giving up that TD,” said Valenti, who the week before, returned an interception for a touchdown in the regular season finale against West Babylon. “We just made a huge play to go up by 14, and I gave it right back to them.”
That huge play was an 84-interception yard return for touchdown by Tiger linebacker Matthew Lugo who plucked a pass out of the air that was deflected by teammate Andrew Miller. The momentum was with the Tigers and their roaring fans. After Malvagno’s explosive play, that momentum flipped right back to the Silver and Red, down by only one score heading to the fourth quarter.
“Nick was being aggressive there and jumped in,” said Northport head coach Pat Campbell. “He (Malvagno) gave him a little juke, got past him and they made a play. But Nick makes plays for us too.”
Valenti has made plays all year. He has 13 catches for 185 yards as a receiver, has been very stingy in coverage and also had that game-changing pick against the Eagles on the road in North Babylon. Would he get another opportunity to help his team advance?
Connetquot would tie the score midway through the fourth by the end of regulation, both teams had overcome 14-point deficits. The game would need to go to overtime; the winner advancing to the semi-final round of the Suffolk II playoffs. The loser’s season would die on the Tiger Stadium turf.
Overtime rules dictate that the teams trade possessions until one team outscores the other in the exchange. Each possession starts 20 yards from the end zone.
Northport got the ball first and mustered only a Billy Griffiths’ field goal to take a rickety 31-28 lead. The Thunderbirds could now win the game with a touchdown.
“I wasn’t exactly comfortable with only getting three points there,” Campbell said.
With the way Connetquot moved the ball, the coach’s concern was justified. The T-birds had 366 yards of total offense on the day and only needed another 20.
Pepitone started his counterattack by pitching the ball left to running back Michael Buttino. Buttino was hit immediately by Tiger safety Christian Raio, and Valenti looped around Buttino’s back and batted the ball out of his hand. Northport linebacker Thomas Kraus fell on the ball and the game was over.
But the celebration had just begun.
Led by Valenti and Kraus, the entire Tiger team stormed down the field towards the scoreboard, in a wild, jubilant display — a massive and jumping sea of blue and white. Legendary Lacrosse Coach Carol Rainson-Rose, who also serves as occasional public address announcer, was gleefully saying something over the microphone but was being drowned out by the raucous crowd and blaring marching band.
Valenti was redeemed.
“I really did some thinking on the sidelines and my teammates told me to keep my head straight and make the next play,” said the relieved Valenti. “So, it felt great to force that fumble and send them home.”
One of those teammates was running back Michael Campoli who broke off another huge run — a 54 yard touchdown late in the first half to get Northport on the board. The Tigers trailed in this game 14-0, the second week in a row they were in such an early hole.
“I gave him (Valenti) a little tough love,” said Campoli, who finished with 112 yards on the ground. “I told him to not let that play define who he is and that he is still a great player.”
With Connetquot still leading 14-7 late in the second quarter after Campoli’s TD burst, T-bird quarterback Nick Pepitone, who threw for 331 yards and two touchdowns, floated a long pass against a heavy wind into a crowd of blue shirts. Tiger DB Evan Gaumont picked it off and returned it to midfield. RB Andrew DeMarco scored moments later, tying the game at the half. Miller had a big 30-yard catch and run to set up the score.
“Andrew Miller was flat out dominant on both sides of the ball,” Campbell said. “He was the best player on the field today and I would say it was the best game of his career. He’s just a great, great player and one of the best kids I’ve ever had the pleasure to coach.”
Miller had 103 yards receiving, including a touchdown, sprung Campoli with a kick-out block on his touchdown run, led the way on Lugo’s pick-six, and terrorized Pepitone all day long from his defensive end spot.
“I think this game was one of my personal bests,” said team captain Miller, who will attend West Point Military Academy in September of 2023. “It fills me with joy to continue playing with this group of guys and we have a lot more to give. We have a great opportunity this week against Lindenhurst.”
Ah, yes, Lindenhurst. One of Northport’s oldest and most heated rivalries, this will be a case where both teams will have revenge on their mind. Last year, on a cold, misty night in Lindenhurst, the Bulldogs scored two touchdowns in the last five minutes of the game to stun Northport and deprive the Tigers of a chance to play for the county championships. The Tigers are still bitter about this loss.
This bitterness sweetened somewhat six weeks ago when Northport blanked the Dogs, and their all-purpose superstar Chris Carson, 19-0, at Northport.
“Lindenhurst is a very tough team, they are well-coached, and Chris Carson is one of the best players in our league,” Campbell said. “I’ve heard all the talk about how they want payback on us because we shut them out, but we haven’t forgotten what happened in the playoffs last year either. I’m not going to say anything more about that. We’ll let what happens on the field decide it.”