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Owen Johansen

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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.

By Steven Zaitz

On most days, it is hard to wipe the smile off the face of Commack junior Jeremy Weiss.

After his dazzling performance against the best quarterbacks on Long Island this past Sunday, it now might well be pretty darn impossible.

Commack quarterback Jeremy Weiss wins the 2022 National Football Federation Long Island QB Challenge. Photo by Steven Zaitz

Weiss bested 11 of the finest high school signal callers in both Nassau and Suffolk to win the inaugural National Football Foundation’s Long Island Quarterback Challenge — slinging and smiling his way to the top of the leaderboard in the first-ever event of its kind. As an added kicker, the straight A student also outsmarted the rest of the pack to take the award for highest Football IQ. 

It was quite a haul for Weiss, who is just weeks away from taking his first snap as QB1 for the Cougars when they open the season at home against Sachem North on Sept. 10.

“When I’m out there, in any type of competition, I give it everything I have and leave everything on that field,” said the wispy gunslinger Weiss. “I prepared for this competition to the best of my ability, and I feel that I made the most of this unique opportunity.”

On a perfect summer morning with a few puffy, cumulus clouds occasionally floating past the sun, the event kicked off at 10 a.m. sharp at Kings Park High School. Former NFL QB Matt Simms was the only judge, and he was generous with advice to all the players throughout the day. Long Island University quarterback coach Jonathan Gill ran the players through their drills, and the whole thing was organized by Suffolk County National Football Foundation Chapter president Len Genova.

“We have great high school football here on Long Island,” Genova said. “Events like this go a long way in honoring scholar athletes and promoting these great players and this great game of football.”

Weiss was not the only quarterback from northwestern Suffolk to impress Judge Simms. Senior Dante Torres from St. Anthony’s High School, one of the highest rated players at any position on Long Island, won the award for Best QB Anticipation. Junior Brayden Stahl of Smithtown West was crowned the Most Accurate Passer. 

“It’s all in the fundamentals,” Stahl said. “Consistent work with the same form for five years will make every throw the same and accuracy more attainable.”

Northport’s quarterback Owen Johansen compete in the challenge. Photo by Steven Zaitz

Northport’s Owen Johansen threw the longest ball of the afternoon — a 64-yard missile, despite participating with an injured thumb on his throwing hand. Tommy Azzara of Smithtown East also acquitted himself well, showing good agility and a nice touch on many of his corner route throws. The other quarterbacks in the competition were Devin Page from Kellenberg Memorial in Uniondale, Michael Wheat from St. John’s the Baptist in West Islip, Matt Metzger of Carey High School in Franklin Square, Brady Clark of Bayport-Blue Point High School, Matt Cargiulo of Manhasset High School, Zion Woodhull Trippett of Holy Trinity in Hicksville, and Peter Liotta of North Shore High School in Glen Head.

But this day belonged to Weiss, who in a few short weeks, will be given the keys to the Commack offense, replacing graduated star QB Matthew McGurk, who led the Cougars to a 6-2 record in 2021. 

Weiss performed well in the grueling battery of quarterback drills which included tests of accuracy, touch, agility, arm strength, x’s and o’s, mobility, and pocket presence. The boys were always on the move, sprinting from drill to drill, only breaking for water while receiving instructions from Gill on the rules of each exercise. 

It was an exhausting day, but well worth it for Weiss, as he looks to use this performance as a springboard to success for not only himself, but for all his guys back in Commack.

Brayden Stahl of Smithtown West competes in the challenge. Photo by Steven Zaitz

“Winning this award and competing with these great players definitely gives me confidence going into the season,” Weiss said. “Not necessarily in the form of personal confidence, but rather in the way that having a great quarterback makes the team and everyone around him better. One of my main goals this year is to create a ‘community’ on our team in which we all help one another.”

In that spirit of helping, legendary Long Island Quarterback Coach James Brady has worked with Weiss and many of the other contestants who participated in Sunday’s event.  He was not surprised by how well the Cougar quarterback performed.

“Jeremy embodies a beautiful recipe for the making of a great quarterback,” said Brady, who starred at St. Anthony’s a decade and a half ago and has coached hundreds of young quarterbacks at his Suffolk-based Elite QB Academy. “He has a load of natural talent, is incredibly smart and a sponge for knowledge. Every time we hit the field together, I can see that he is working to master his craft. That kid’s work ethic is off the charts and my heart is so full seeing him receive those trophies with that great smile on his face. I hope he remembers this day forever.”

Ah yes, that smile.  On or off the field, running, throwing, or evading giant defenders, it never disappears.  Is it simply because Mr. Weiss is such a happy guy?

“I call it my focus face,” he joked. “I’ve been smiling on the playing field ever since I can remember.”

Walking out of Kings Park stadium after a full day of focus face, Weiss, as well as his parents, were ear-to-ear as they struggled to cart out all the new additions to the Weiss family trophy case.

“It was an amazing experience to be here and to compete with this group of outstanding players,” he said. “I learned a ton from this competition, and I think it will help me become a better player and thus make us a better team.”

That would, for the next four months, certainly make him, and all of Cougar Nation, all smiles.