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Half Hollow Hills East Thunderbirds

By Steven Zaitz

To the very end, they protected the ‘N.’

In an emotional roller coaster of a football season, that had them battling COVID just as hard as their opponents, the Northport Tigers wrapped up their schedule April 24 with a rousing victory over the Half Hollow Hills East Thunderbirds. With the 34-13 win, the Tigers earned Suffolk County’s League III title and capped off the year on a well-deserved high note.

Northport finished with a 5-1 record and rolled up a 188-59-point differential. The one blemish, a heartbreaker of a loss at West Islip, two weeks ago in the Conference II semi-final, prevented them from earning a piece of the county crown, but all in all, the Tigers spring campaign was an inspirational success that has put them back on the map as a Long Island powerhouse.

Newsday listed them as the 9th best team on Long Island in their final rankings in 2021 — especially impressive considering they lost six games out of eight in 2019.

“Northport has a winning tradition, and it was cool being a part of a team that brought back that tradition,” said senior captain and star middle linebacker Anthony Canales, who played his final game as a Tiger on Saturday. “I’m also proud to have been able to show the younger guys what it’s like to be a Northport Tiger and the way of ‘Class and Character’, just like I was taught when I was in their shoes.”

Canales, in addition to earning first team All Suffolk County and All Division awards (see full list of Tigers below), is a finalist for the prestigious Bob Collotta award presented to the most outstanding linebacker in Suffolk. He is still in the running for the Rob Burnett Award for most outstanding defensive player in Suffolk County too. 

“He deserves all the accolades he gets,” said Northport Head Football Coach Pat Campbell. “He’s had a fantastic season and he’s a great leader.”

Canales led a Tiger defense that had many star players and was an overwhelming and suffocating wall of blue all year. On this sun-drenched afternoon, they were provided an extra bit of motivation when they saw that the Hills East team was disrespectfully dancing on the Northport ‘N’ logo in the middle of the field in pre-game warmups.

“That wasn’t cool,” said Canales. “That fired our whole team up and they (Hills East) paid the price. We always protect the ‘N.’”

Senior defensive lineman Cole Ronan, who must have used that fuel, had a great game with seven tackles and a sack. He was instrumental in containing T-Bird star quarterback Leisaan Hibbert, who aside from a few spectacular juke moves, was held in check for much of the afternoon.

“All week in practice the guys were preaching that we were so thankful that we’re getting to play one more game with each other,” Ronan said. “We wanted to give it everything we had this week and go out with a win. I’m glad we did.”

“He should get the Player of the Game,” said Campbell of Ronan. “He gets off the line of scrimmage and he knows how to get great pad level. He’s a big kid but he gets low and gets to where he needs to be to make plays. Great job by Cole.”

By losing to West Islip and Hills East’s loss to Bellport in the first round of the playoffs, the Tigers and T-Birds were able to compete for the League III championship.  The two teams were scheduled to play in Week 2, but that game was erased due to a Section XI mandated quarantine. That was the start of a series of events that put the program on a never-ending obstacle course, as they lost between 12-15 players due the coronavirus and injury over the next five weeks.

“You can sit here and do the ‘what-ifs,’ said Campbell. “But there’s nothing we can do to change it. We still had a great year.”

What wasn’t so great was the way Saturday’s game started. T-Bird running back Louis Mathurian ran around right tackle and sliced through the Tiger Defense for 60 yards, defensive backs Rocco Stola and Tom Tini finally tracked him down deep in Tiger territory.

“I probably ran 100 yards chasing that guy, but I knew Rocco and I were going to catch him,” said the speedy cornerback Tini. “We weren’t going to let him score.”

Stola and Tini’s persistence paid off as Canales recovered a fumble three plays later and the Tigers soon stamped their imprint on this game.

Running back Rafe Carner ran the ball for 34 yards on the next two plays and quarterback Conner Gallagher finished off a 10-play drive with a 2-yard sneak, giving the Tigers a 6-0 lead. The offensive line, including tight end Wade Holden, opened up huge holes on this drive and throughout the entire season, bludgeoning hapless defenders to the tune of 7.8 yards a carry.  Seniors Carner, Andrew Argyris, Stola and junior Jack Sandrib amassed over 1,300 yards rushing, due in no small part to the big guys up front.

Offensive linemen rarely get noticed unless they commit a penalty, but to not give citation to Ryan Wagner, Ronan, Ryan Farrington, Stylianos Poilitidis, Jack Pokowicz, Tom McDonagh, Andrew Canales, Joe Keller-DelPrete, Chris Bolitho, Gavin O’Malley and Luke Lamendola would be an injustice — especially on a team whose style is to cement-mix the opposing defense into submission and dominate the line of scrimmage. Holden, who is the quintessential blocking tight end, was selected as an All-Division player despite not having gaudy receiving numbers.

“Our offensive line was great all year,” Canales said. “We lost Joe (Keller-DelPrete) to injury twice. A few kids had COVID, but it was next man up.”

Farrington, who played center against Hills East in addition to his duties as a defensive lineman, was on the field essentially the whole day.

“We do everything we need to win,” Farrington said. “We prepared hard this week knowing it was our last game. We wanted this one.”

Stola, who fittingly ended his Tiger career with a fourth quarter touchdown catch from Gallagher, is the last in a bloodline of three brothers to play at Northport. They all represented the team and school with class and excellence throughout their football careers according to Campbell.

“That kid is a superior athlete and an incredible competitor,” Campbell said. “I’ve had a Stola on my team for eight years and I can’t remember what it’s like to not have a Stola on my team.  All three of them have been gems to our program and it goes beyond the football field. Rocco is a great, great kid and I’m going to miss having him.”

“Northport football has been our family for the past eight years,” said Stola, who will be attending Middlebury College in the fall. “My brother Frank started the legacy, then Ben, and I was honored to finish it.”

Stola, and the entire Northport team, certainly finished the 2021 football season in style. After the final gun, they had a prolonged and tearful celebration amongst themselves and family members as they climbed up into the bleachers.

“Playing my last game as a Tiger, I had mixed emotions,” Stola said. “Getting that touchdown and the win was great, but then with all the hugs and realizing it’s my last time in the uniform it was sad, but a good kind of sad.”

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Suffolk County honors for the Northport Tigers

ALL COUNTY-ALL DIVISION

Anthony Canales – LB

Cole Ronan – DL

Rafe Carner – RB/DB

Rocco Stola – RB/DB

ALL DIVISION

Dan Lugo – DL

Andrew Argyris – RB

Owen Johansen – LB

Wade Holden – TE

Tom Tini – DB

2nd TEAM ALL DIVISION

Tristan Triolo – WR/DB

Ryan Farrington – OL/DL

Conner Gallagher – QB