By Bill Landon
The No. 4-seeded Ward Melville football team had waited 30 years for another Suffolk County championship appearance, and despite a tough loss to No. 2 William Floyd Nov. 18, 28-21, the Patriots powered the program to new heights.
“We’re extremely proud of the boys and how far they’ve come this year,” Ward Melville head coach Chris Boltrek said. “Over the last three seasons, we have improved upon the prior year’s record and, for the seniors, Friday was the culmination of their dedication and effort. Hopefully, going forward, our trip to the county championship will encourage student-athletes throughout the district to play football and strengthen the program.”
Ward Melville’s first break of the game came on a fumble recovery when William Floyd was driving into the red zone. The Patriots offense went to work on their own 18-yard line, and senior quarterback Wesley Manning hit classmate Andrew McKenna, a wide receiver, over the middle on a 22-yard pass to move the chains to the middle of the field. Amid the drive, Ward Melville was forced to punt the ball away.
On their next possession, the Patriots also fumbled the ball, but the difference was that the Colonials made the Ward Melville pay for its mistake by finding the end zone four plays later for an early 7-0 lead.
The ensuing kickoff gave Ward Melville good field position following William Floyd drawing three consecutive penalties for an out of bounds kick, delay of game and offsides. Backed up on its own 25-yard line, William Floyd finally got the kick away and the Patriots’ return brought them to the Colonials’ 38-yard line with eight minutes remaining until halftime.
Ward Melville seized the opportunity and Manning found senior wide receiver Eddie Munoz over the middle, to move the chains to the 29-yard line. Manning spread the wealth and dropped the next pass to senior wide receiver Dominic Pryor on the left side for the 35-yard touchdown reception, and with senior kicker Joe LaRosa’s extra-point kick, the team tied the game 7-7.
With just over three minutes left in the half, William Floyd went up 14-7 with a 10-yard touchdown run from James Taitt, but Ward Melville had an answer. The Patriots went deep into the playbook, and Manning hit Pryor on a screen pass who, although running into a wall, flicked the ball to senior wide receiver John Corpac, who raced down the left sideline for the touchdown. LaRosa’s kick made it a new game at 14-14.
Ward Melville had an opportunity to take a lead into the break, but failed to find the end zone on four consecutive plays from William Floyd’s 5-yard line.
Manning threw an interception to open the second half, and Taitt moved the ball to Ward Melville’s 1-yard line on the next play. Nick Silva finished the drive to put William Floyd out front, 21-14, to open the final quarter.
“Obviously we are very upset we didn’t reach our goal of winning the LIC, but I’m very proud to be able to say I helped lead the team to the county championship [final], which we haven’t been to in 29 years,” Manning said. “It’s been a great season and we all made memories and have a bond that will last a lifetime.”
The Patriots struggled with the Colonials’ defensive line, and with 6:54 left to play, Silva tacked on his third touchdown run of the game, to extend the advantage, 28-14.
On the ensuing kickoff, Ward Melville’s junior running back Nick Messina made a statement, when he returned the ball 74 yards and into the end zone, to pull the Patriots back within one touchdown with 6:32 remaining.
The Patriots’ final push brought them to the Colonials’ red zone with just over a minute left on the clock, but after four chances Ward Melville just couldn’t break through.
“This is a group of kids that are fighters — they don’t quit no matter what was going on,” Boltrek said. “They fought through adversity at all points of the season. They were never out of any game and that’s just the attitude they have. At one point we were 2-4, and for them to show the fortitude and character to believe in one another and believe in the process and keep fighting all the way to the county championship speaks volumes about them as young men. We’re going to miss our seniors, and I hope their Herculean effort has inspired the underclassmen to work even harder for next season — off-season workouts begin after Thanksgiving.”
Ward Melville’s ascent to the finals may have seemed unlikely, needing to win the final two games of the season to make a postseason appearance, and shutting out Connetquot and dethroning previously undefeated No. 1 Lindenhurst. But in his third year leading the team, Boltrek was able to continue the turnaround for the program.
“I have good athletes and I have good coaches, so I give them a lot of credit,” Boltrek said. “And the kids have bought into the idea that Ward Melville could be a football school.”
Desirée Keegan contributed reporting.