By Steven Zaitz
Often times, a football game is just a football game.
But there are instances when it is a lot like chess, with the guys in the headsets matching wits and probing for weakness. Other times, the game is just an all-out street brawl, with both sides trading haymakers until one is left standing.
On rare and glorious occasions, it is all three.
Saturday’s Suffolk Conference II semifinal game between the Northport Tigers and the West Islip Lions was just such an occasion, as West Islip survived a late Northport rally and emerged with a 21-14 victory. The game featured wild swings of momentum and emotion, bloodied uniforms, in-game adjustments, and impossible escapes.
The outcome having enormous consequences for both sides — a trip to the Conference Championship and a chance to own a piece of the Suffolk County Crown — only added to the drama. The pressure was palpable on the field, on the sidelines and in the bleachers.
West Islip senior Joe Constantino, who is listed as a quarterback, but does most of his damage on the ground and with his brain, rushed for 125 yards and two touchdowns to lead West Islip.
“Joe is a special athlete,” said Northport Head Football Coach Pat Campbell. “He’s probably the best running back in Suffolk County and he’s playing quarterback. He’s got a really nice lean and as good a tackling team as we are, we could never get a full shot on him. That’s what they always said about [NFL greats] Walter Payton and Barry Sanders. You could never hit them square. That’s how Joe runs.”
But Constantino would have to wait to take center stage, as West Islip Head Coach Steve Mileti elected to kick to Northport to open the game — a big early gamble by Mileti because Northport had scored on 75% of its first possessions in the regular season. Mileti’s risk was rewarded.
After a three and out and a poor punt gave West Islip the ball at the Tiger 30-yard line, in came Constantino.
“Joe is probably the best kid I have ever coached,” Mileti said. He’s just a magician with the way he handles everything and he’s amazing to watch.”
That is quite a statement, as Mileti has been around the Lions program for 30 years, first as a star linebacker and then an assistant coach starting in 1997. He took the reigns as head coach in 2009 and he has built a program that is a perennial winner, developing many fine players over the years.
On third down and six, Constantino faked a jet-sweep handoff to running back Ryan Behrens. He then burst through the middle just past the fingertips of Northport linebacker Owen Johansen and scampered to the Tiger two-yard line. Three plays later, he outflanked the Tiger defense and walked into the end zone to give West Islip a 7-0 lead. It was the first time the Tigers had ever trailed in a game this year.
“A lot of bad things happened in the first five minutes of that game,” Campbell said. “We had a missed assignment, a bad snap and a bad punt on our first drive and that set them up. When you’re playing a good team like that, you can’t do those types of things.”
Against Constantino who now drew first blood, this is especially true.
“A lot of people call our team small and it’s true that we are smaller in size than most teams, so any little thing we can take advantage of, we have to go try and get,” said the humble superstar senior Constantino. “Watching film, seeing what the other team does is very important because so often that stuff shows up in games.”
After another Northport three and out, the Lions took over at midfield. On a fourth and two play from the Tiger 35, Constantino used a hard count to get right end Cole Ronan to jump offsides and give the Lions a free first down — a costly mistake.
Eight plays later, Konrad Maciejny scored from the one-yard line. The Tigers were in a two-touchdown hole, the game was well into the second quarter and they had yet to gain a first down. Constantino had landed another punch and the Tigers were reeling.
Northport and West Islip would go into halftime separated by 14 points. The Tigers were wounded for the first time since 2019, but would they lay down and die?
“During halftime, we definitely talked about being more disciplined,” Campbell said. “It was about a matter of re-focusing and cleaning up the little mistakes that were costing us. Sometimes I can tell by the look in their eyes that the kids become a little shell-shocked in a situation like that. It’s my job to remind them what they’re capable of.”
Campbell is referring to the Tigers greatest strengths — stopping the opposing offense and running the ball. They stopped the Lions on three plays to start the third quarter. Anthony Canales had one of his 22 (yes, 22) tackles on this drive and almost caught Constantino in the West Islip end zone. This was a game of so many ‘almosts’ for the Tigers and their hardy supporters.
After an 11-yard punt return by Rafe Carner, Northport was set up deep in Lion territory.
On the Tigers second play from scrimmage in the second half, running back Rocco Stola ran a sweep left. He saw enemy shirts in the hole he was supposed to hit, bounced it outside and in a flash, was gone. A lightning strike 27-yard touchdown, and the Tigers were suddenly back in business, down by seven with a whole half of football remaining.
“That play was supposed to go inside the tackle, but the blocking developed where I thought I could get to the outside and I did,” Stola said. “It got us back in the game and swung the momentum to us.”
It was now Constantino’s turn to make a counter move.
On the next drive, he ran the ball four times for 40 yards and completed a pass for 20 more, moving to the Northport 10-yard line. On one of those runs, he was swung down hard by the Tigers’ massive sophomore Johansen for a loss of five but bounced up off the artificial turf and called the next play. Constantino was pounded hard by all 11 Tiger defenders all afternoon, who are all big, fast, and mean.
“He’s what? 165, 170 pounds?” Campbell asked rhetorically. “But he is tough, and he gets right up every single time.”
After Carner made a splendid, touchdown-saving, open field tackle on Behrens at the Tiger 10-yard line, Constantino again showed his moxie, instincts and escapability.
On a play designed to go left, Ronan sealed it off so the slippery quarterback cut right. Ronan chased but Constantino ran away from him and fellow lineman Dan Lugo. He angled to the goal line and pierced through nose tackle Ryan Farrington and Stola like they were twin turnstiles, and then bounced off linebacker Andrew Miller and Carner. He kissed the end zone pylon with the nose of football after a headlong dive. It was a feat of ballet dancer and bulldozer all wrapped up in a 10-yard touchdown jaunt.
And just as Northport had thought they wrested momentum to start the half, Constantino had wrested it back, restoring West Islip’s two touchdown lead with a huge chunk of clock now gone.
“I immediately saw that defensive end [Ronan] coming at me, so I knew I had to cut back to the right,” Constantino said. “I saw a little opening and as soon as I did, I caught a glimpse of the pylon out of the corner of my eye and went for it. It worked out well.”
For West Islip, yes. Not so much for Northport.
“We should have stopped him on that play,” said Canales, who is a candidate for both the Collatta and Burnett awards presented to most outstanding linebacker and defensive player in Suffolk County. “We had four or five chances to get him, but he’s a shifty runner. Hats off to him.”
“We came out in the second half and flipped the script, but then they flipped it right back and we were running out of time,” Campbell said. “They stacked the box against us, and at some point, we had to adjust our game plan.”
The Tigers, whose vaunted running attack averaged 300 yards rushing per game in the regular season, had a grand total of 81 against West Islip. Gaining the first move advantage by scoring two early touchdowns freed the Lions to deploy more defenders closer to the line of scrimmage, taking away the strong suit of Northport’s offense.
But with a little over a quarter to go, would the Northport Tigers fight back or simply throw in the towel or start mixing in some throws? Anyone familiar with Northport athletics knows the answer, and no greater example of this fighting spirit came in the form of a fourth down desperation run by Rocco Stola.
With the Tigers facing a fourth down and two from their own 41 and the clock whittling away any realistic chance for a Tiger comeback, it was do or die for Northport. Lined up as a slot receiver, Stola came in motion to the right on a play called Wing Left 46 Truck. Immediately pursued by four Lions at the snap of the ball, Rocco simply outran them but was ceding ground way behind the line of scrimmage in doing so. He cut upfield sharply, rolled out of the tackle of a fifth defender before diving headlong out of bounds for a tremendously hard-fought gain of four. The Tigers still had a pulse.
“There was no way they were stopping me,” Stola said. “I knew the situation and they chewed up a ton of clock and it got late early for us, but I was getting that first down no matter what.”
“What a great run by Rocco,” Campbell said. “We didn’t block the edge as well as we should have, but he got outside and gave himself enough room to belly back and beat three or four of their guys and then spun past another. Incredible.”
But with less than five minutes to go and down by two scores, the Tigers would now need to put the ball in the air on almost every play. Quarterback Conner Gallagher, who did not complete a pass in the first half, now held the fate of the game in his hands. He accepted the challenge.
Gallagher hit wide receiver Tristan Triolo with a 10-yard pass and then led Stola perfectly on an eight-yard slant pattern that the speedy running back turned into a 40-yard gain. With a pep now in his step, he scrambled for a first down and then hit Carner in the back of the end zone for a 15-yard score. That cut the lead to 21-14 with a minute and a half to go.
With only one timeout remaining, the Tigers were forced to try an onside kick. West Islip recovered, took a knee, and the game was suddenly just over. Constantino and Mileti executed their magic act of a game plan perfectly and made the game, and Northport’s dream of a county title, disappear.
“They had a great game plan, ran time off the clock and took advantage of our mistakes,” Campbell said. “The total yardage was almost exactly even [188 to 174 for the Lions] and it was just a great, defensive, hard-fought football game.”
Coach Mileti echoed that last sentiment.
“Football is just a special game and we saw it out there today,” Mileti said. “It was two great programs giving everything they had, and we were lucky enough to come out on top.”
For the first time this year, it was the Tigers whose luck had run out.
Tigers are still playing!
Despite the lost to West Islip, the Northport Tigers football team will host Half Hollow Hills East this Saturday at 1 p.m.
This game will determine a Section XI, League III champion and will be the final game of the Tigers’ season. The original match that was scheduled between the two team back in March was canceled due to COVID-19. The Thunderbirds lost to Bellport in their semifinal game, setting up the opportunity for this game. Bellport will play West Islip for the second time in three weeks in West Islip, the winner capturing the Conference II championship.