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Wesley Manning

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Nick Messina rushes the ball upfield. Photo by Bill Landon

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.

Dominic Pryor jumps up to make a catch. Photo by Bill Landon
Dominic Pryor jumps up to make a catch. Photo by Bill Landon

“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.

Wesley Manning tosses a pass over the middle. Photo by Bill Landon
Wesley Manning tosses a pass over the middle. Photo by Bill Landon

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.

Chris Boltrek coaches from the sideline. Photo by Bill Landon
Chris Boltrek coaches from the sideline. Photo by Bill Landon

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.

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Eddie Munoz makes his way through the defense as he gains yards. File photo by Bill Landon

The Ward Melville football team hasn’t played for a county championship in 29 years, so when the Patriots had the opportunity to, they weren’t going to let it slip away.

First, No. 5 Ward Melville shut out No. 4 Connetquot, 14-0, in the qualifying round, and on Nov. 11, the reseeded No. 4 Patriots upset previously undefeated No. 1 Lindenhurst, 27-10, to make it to the county finals Nov. 18. The team will take on No. 2 William Floyd at Stony Brook University at 7 p.m.

Wesley Manning tries to avoid a sack on a quarterback keep. File photo by Bill Landon
Wesley Manning tries to avoid a sack on a quarterback keep. File photo by Bill Landon

“It was a big win for the program,” Ward Melville head coach Chris Boltrek said. “The defense played great throughout the game to keep it close, and the offense pulled away in the second half.”

Lindenhurst jumped out to a 10-0 lead on an 8-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter — just a few plays after Ward Melville fumbled a handoff on the opening possession — and a 21-yard field goal to start the second. The tide turned quickly after that for the Patriots.

Senior wide receiver Eddie Munoz caught a 7-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Wesley Manning to close the gap to 10-6, though the extra-point kick attempt was blocked. The deficit was erased shortly following halftime.

“Beating the No. 1 seed is the best feeling,” Munoz said. “As a team, we can hold our heads high and be proud we took them down. We really prepared, watching film and scheming against their formations and play. We had mixed feelings — obviously everyone was a little nervous, but that’s part of the game. We were ready and excited.”

Manning and Munoz connected for another touchdown for the first score of the second half, on a 4-yard pass, and with senior kicker Joe LaRosa’s extra-point kick successful, the Patriots led 13-10 to open the final stanza.

“Scoring for my team was a great feeling and I couldn’t have done it without any of my teammates,” Munoz said. “I feel very comfortable catching [Wesley Manning’s] passes because I have great trust in every throw he makes, and he trusts that I will catch every pass he throws my way.”

“Playing on this historic team is something that I will never forget.”

— Eddie Munoz

He said the bond the two have was formed over the summer.

“We would go to training sessions together and go up to our home field and throw the ball around,” he said.

In the final 12 minutes, senior cornerback and wide receiver Andrew McKenna snatched a slant pass up the middle from Manning and took it to the house for a 61-yard touchdown to extend the cushion. With LaRosa’s kick good, Ward Melville went up 20-10.

“Andrew McKenna had a huge game for us, shutting down Division 1 recruit Jeremy Ruckert, and scoring a 61-yard touchdown off of a pass from Wesley Manning,” Boltrek said.

Senior wide receiver John Corpac capped off the scoring with a 90-yard run. The Patriots held the No. 1-seeded team scoreless in the second half.

“Playing on this historic team is something that I will never forget and something that I have enjoyed being a part of, and I can’t wait to play Friday with this team,” Munoz said. “I feel very confident and excited as we move into the finals, and I think that Ward Melville football can make history once again.”

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John Corpac wasted no time taking one to the house on homecoming game day.

The Ward Melville football team’s senior wide receiver, defensive back and kick returner knew if his team’s homecoming opponent, Patchogue-Medford, watched any film of his Patriots, they weren’t going to let him get his hands on the opening kickoff during their Sept. 24 contest.

“I was expecting a squib kick,” he said. “And that’s what I got.”

As the two teams collided on the opening play, Corpac picked up the ball, which the Raiders were trying to keep away from the dangerous return man, on the far right side of the field, jolted left to avoid a tackle, and, like running down an open highway, cruised all the way to the end zone for an 85-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

“I scooped the ball up, the hole was there and I only had to beat one guy,” Corpac said. “Kick returns are my favorite thing to do. It was the best feeling.”

The Ward Melville football team benefitted from a fast start during its homecoming matchup, but a strong finish proved the Patriots are ready to put up a fight this season. The team bested the Raiders 35-22 to avenge its 2015 homecoming loss.

“Last year Northport came in here and beat up a little bit on us — we lost — so for these seniors this was big for them,” Ward Melville head coach Chris Boltrek said. “There were definitely some things that we have to clean up for the next game, but when we really needed them to step up the kids did a nice job.”

Patchogue-Medford mounted a charge up the field on its first drive following Corpac’s return touchdown, and bulled into the end zone on a 1-yard run to even the score.

“Last year Northport came in here and beat up a little bit on us — we lost — so for these seniors this was big for them.”

— Chris Bolterk

Ward Melville responded by moving the ball on its next possession, but a fumble recovered by Patchogue-Medford changed the tide. The Patriots’ defense made up for its offenses mistake, and forced Patchogue-Medford to settle for a field goal attempt, which was missed.

To open the second quarter, Ward Melville wide receiver and strong safety Eddie Munoz, who also recorded an interception, received a 29-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Wesley Manning. Munoz helped set up the score with gains of 28 yards and four yards earlier in the drive.

Manning tossed his next touchdown pass to junior running back Nick Messina. The play wouldn’t have been possible without senior cornerback and wide receiver Andrew McKenna’s second interception of the game. He also chipped in 35 yards on the ensuing drive. Messina’s 13-yard catch and senior kicker Joe LaRosa’s point after brought the score to 21-7 before halftime.

“Our special teams was excellent, our defense really came up big causing a lot of turnovers in key moments,” Boltrek said. “And offensively we did some nice things. When we got nice blocks and we scored, we threw the ball well, so there was some good and some bad, but we have to improve.”

Patchogue-Medford added seven points following another 1-yard run with 20 seconds to go in the third to pull closer, but Messina rushed the ball 52 yards for a touchdown with 6.5 seconds on the clock to re-extend the Patriots’ advantage.

Shortly into the final stanza, Messina rushed home another touchdown, this time taking the ball 22 yards to help his team jump out in front, 35-14.

“On those few plays the line did exactly what they needed to do,” Messina said. “If we could do that more often we could go far, and score more touchdowns.”

Boltrek said his team needs to clean up the blocking up front going forward, though he was impressed with his running back’s performance.

“Nick is a kid we all depend on because of his speed and his athleticism, and it’s warranted,” Boltrek said. “He had two breakaway touchdowns, he did a nice job catching along the backfield, so he did really well for us.”

Manning completed 15 of 22 passes for 240 yards, including two touchdowns. He said all the players were confident coming into the homecoming game after a strong week of practice. He said he enjoyed showing the team could get the job done through the air, and in the second half, on the ground, too.

“The feeling kept getting better and better as the game went on,” he said. “It’s great to win on your senior homecoming. There’s really nothing better. I think we’re really going to carry on momentum. We had a tough loss against Longwood and now we just have to keep the momentum going next week against Floyd.”

Ward Melville travels to William Floyd Oct. 1 for a 2 p.m. kickoff.

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Eddie Munoz leads the pack as he gains yards during a game last season. File photo by Mark D'Angio

By Joseph Wolkin

Ward Melville’s football team lost four key members during the offseason, each departing for collegiate play at a Division II or Division III school.

The Patriots will be without quarterback Matt O’Hea, linebacker Patrick Morelli, defensive end Tom Lorusso and running back Nick Cervone in 2016, leaving major holes in the team’s roster.

Wesley Manning evades a tackle and moves the ball up the field in a game last season. File photo by Bill Landon
Wesley Manning evades a tackle and moves the ball up the field in a game last season. File photo by Bill Landon

However, for head coach Chris Boltrek, who enters his third year at the helm of the Patriots, improving on last year’s 5-3 record is the goal.

“Our expectations are pretty high,” Boltrek said. “We received the No. 3 seed out of 14 teams in the division. That shows everybody that the coaches in our league see us as being a pretty good team. Our expectations are to live up to those standards.”

Despite losing four seniors, 22 seniors return to the Patriots this year, making them a title contender after finishing 2015 tied for third in the division with Northport and Connetquot.

With O’Hea’s departure, Ward Melville looks to replace the young man who threw for 1,933 yards last year, good enough for 11th in New York.

“We return a lot of out skill players — key players from last year’s team after getting a year of experience under their belt,” the coach said. “I think this is a team with a lot of potential.”

Senior Wesley Manning will receive the majority of playing time at quarterback, with junior Peyton Capizzi beginning to show off his skills in preparation for his senior year. Manning enters this season with six pass attempts on his resume, featuring four completions for 79 yards, including a 19-yard pass for a touchdown against Northport.

In addition to a new quarterback, Boltrek is prepared to evaluate the team’s surplus of returning players.

John Corpac carries the ball across the gridiron in a game last season. File photo by Bill Landon
John Corpac carries the ball across the gridiron in a game last season. File photo by Bill Landon

“Our biggest strength, really, is we’re returning real football kids, even though they might play other sports,” he said. “They just love football, and when you have that mentality, coupled with their skill and athleticism, that’s a real strength and asset.”

The team’s wide receiver core remains largely unchanged for 2016.

Senior Eddie Munoz, an All-State honorable mention, is coming off a year that featured eight touchdown catches along with a total of 516 receiving yards. He will also continue to be a safety for the team after intercepting three passes last year in addition to piling up 41 tackles.

Fellow senior John Corpac is back as a wideout for the Patriots. After catching seven touchdown passes last year, the first-time All-Division receiver looks to lead the team’s offense.

As the Patriots look to move from being a solid playoff contender to one that’s in the title hunt, Boltrek said he believes there is still work that needs to be done to bring Ward Melville to the next level.

“I think the biggest thing is we need our offensive line to gel at the beginning of the season,” Boltrek said. “Last year, our offensive line was young. We had a junior playing center and two other linemen who were sophomores. The two other guys were seniors, but they were both first-year starters. This year, we’re sort of lucky that we get our center back to have a senior at the middle of the line. Stability and continuity is what we’re doing up front. It’ll be huge for us during the season.”

The Ward Melville football team got on the scoreboard first Saturday in a battle on the gridiron against visiting Northport, but the Tigers ultimately spoiled the Patriots’ homecoming celebration, winning 35-21.

Ward Melville (1-2) opened the scoring with an impressive 16-play, 82-yard drive, capped by senior running back Nick Cervone’s 7-yard touchdown run and junior kicker Joe LaRosa’s point after, to give the Patriots a 7-0 lead.

But Northport responded with a touchdown run of its own to tie it up.

With 1:57 left in the quarter, Ryan Elliot punctuated a nine-play, 65-yard march with a 13-yard touchdown run. With the point-after attempt successful by Ryan Tromblee, the game was tied, 7-7.

On the next possession, Northport intercepted senior quarterback Matthew O’Hea’s pass over the middle. The pass, which was intercepted by Northport safety Dan Preston, was returned 70 yards for the tiebreaking score.

Northport continued to light up the scoreboard, and took advantage of two turnovers, scoring three touchdowns to end the first half leading 35-7.

The Tigers didn’t score after the halftime break, while Ward Melville capitalized on two opportunities in the fourth to close the gap, 35-21.

First, junior wide receiver John Corpac scored on a 15-yard pass from O’Hea, who finished the game going 10-for-16 with 101 yards and two interceptions, and after, senior wide receiver Vincent Negri scored off a 1-yard pass from junior quarterback Wesley Manning.

Ward Melville looks to bounce back from the loss when the Patriots travel to Sachem North Friday, with the hopes of spoiling their opponent’s homecoming festivities. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.