By Steven Zaitz
The air was like soup and the astroturf near its melting point, as the Northport Tigers and North Babylon Bulldogs fought a hotly contested battle of attrition to open the football season this past Saturday.
Temperatures soared and tempers flared as momentum swung wildly throughout the course of this sweaty, sticky, hard-hitting mess of a game. There were almost as many players gasping for air, for both teams, as there were empty water bottles strewn about the sidelines.
At the climax, against a gassed group of Tiger defenders, North Babylon junior tailback Jawara Keahey delivered the death blow to the home Tigers with his fifth touchdown of the day — a 33-yard run around right tackle on third down and 13. Keahey, who rushed for a Long Island-best 258 yards on the day, slithered through a small hole at the line of scrimmage, broke a tackle attempt by Tiger defensive back Tommy O’Brien at the 10, and outran three other Northport defenders to score with a little over a minute remaining in the game to win it. The final score was 33-27 as the Bulldogs rang up 368 yards on the ground.
“That run was heartbreaking,” Northport head coach Pat Campbell said. “We had a chance to stuff it at the line of scrimmage, but [Keahey] found a crease, broke it to the sideline and was off to the races.”
O’Brien had a chance to stop Keahey before he scored, but could not.
“I had him and should have wrapped him up and brought him down,” said junior O’Brien, making his first varsity start. “I’m going to learn from this experience, and I know that it won’t happen in the future.”
Also making his first varsity appearance is junior quarterback Enrique Hernandez, who had a double order of unenviable as he is replacing the graduated football and baseball star Owen Johansen, and he had to do it against this snarling Bulldog defense.
“After that first drive, I felt pretty natural and comfortable,” Hernandez said. “It was the most physical game I’ve ever been a part of, and I think we had a good chance to win. We just need to fix a few things, and we’ll be fine.”
Hernandez looked like a seasoned veteran on Northport’s first possession, as he led the Tigers on an 80-yard, 11-play touchdown drive that was capped off by an 8-yard dash up the middle by senior Giancarlo Valenti. Senior running back Michael Campoli juiced up an already frenzied crowd with a 40-yard run on the second play from scrimmage. Hernandez then got the Tigers into the red zone with an 11-yard keeper. Five plays later, Northport led 6-0.
The Bulldogs bit back on their second possession. North Babylon quarterback Chris Stumpf completed a pass to Keahey for 29 yards midway through the second quarter and shortly thereafter, Keahey was doing the first of his five touchdown celebrations after he waltzed up the middle virtually untouched. It made the score 7-6 in favor of the Bulldogs, and it marked the first of three lead changes on the day.
“North Babylon is a very senior-heavy team, and they like to run it down your throat,” Campbell said. “We got a taste of it today with their guys up front, and obviously their running back [Keahey] had a special kind of day.”
After an exchange of punts, Northport took advantage of a short field and took back the lead right before halftime. Junior Christian Campoli, Michael’s brother, caught a 6-yard touchdown pass at the front-right pylon to give the Tigers the lead, 13-7, on the last play of the first half.
“Enrique threw me a perfect ball with a lot of pressure in his face,” said Christian Campoli, who would later leave the game with a painful leg cramp. “He got hit hard and still was able to get the ball to me.”
Hernandez only completed three passes for 48 yards, but Campbell was very pleased with his performance.
“Enrique did a great job,” Campbell said. “He went toe-to-toe with that defense in a tough environment and took a couple of big hits. But he’s a cool cat, and he kept his composure. I believe that he is only going to get better.”
But would it be enough on this day? The 5-foot-7-inch, 150-pound Keahey would provide the answer.
He ripped off 56 yards on three carries to start the third quarter and finished the 10-play drive with a 1-yard plunge off right tackle to swing the lead back to the Bulldogs at 14-13. North Babylon forced a punt, and Keahey got right back at it. He galloped 47 yards to cap a two-play drive and put North Babylon up by eight — a double-barreled assault on the Northport defense to start the half and wrest control of the game.
But the Tigers were still a touchdown and a two-point conversion from tying the game after Michael Campoli, his brother Christian now ruled out of the game, blocked the extra point.
“I didn’t know how bad his injury was,” Michael said of his younger brother. “But I was playing angry — for him. I know what he means to this team, so I did everything I could to keep us in the game.”
After Valenti electrified the crowd with a 44-yard touchdown run, slicing through the middle of the tiring Bulldog defense for his second score of the day, Northport trailed by two. Campbell called Michael Campoli’s number to try and tie the score.
On a play called “wing sweep,” Michael Campoli followed right guard Connor Henigman and left guard Connor Farrington and lunged the ball over the goal line just as his knee hit the turf. The game was tied with just over three minutes to go.
“I told the guys in the huddle that there was no way they were going to stop me,” Campoli said. “And I was right. It was great blocking by the big guys up front, both of the Connors, and I just did the rest.”
Campoli finished the game with 91 yards rushing on 12 carries.
“He’s a warrior,” Campbell said. “He’s a quiet kid but he plays with a nasty streak.”
But North Babylon has competitors, too. The senior Stumpf picked a great time to complete his second pass of the day when he hit his tight end Jack Montecalvo on a bootleg for 27 yards to the Tiger 30. After a penalty, Northport had a chance to stop the Bulldogs on 3rd and 13 with a minute to go in the game and was likely headed to overtime if Northport could prevent a North Babylon first down.
Keahey did them one better. He took the ball from Stumpf for the final time, made a subtle juke at the line of scrimmage and raced down the right sideline into the endzone — in his wake, leaving five exhausted Tiger defenders sprawled out like felled bowling pins. It was the final strike of the afternoon and, fittingly, it was delivered by Keahey.
“We got a little pinched in the middle, and he busted it outside,” Campbell said. “We have a lot of new guys on defense, and I’m thinking as the season goes along we’re going to learn on the job and get better. We have to.”
Northport will not have long to wait to show if they have taken lessons out of this one, as they play a rare Thursday afternoon game, Sept. 14, at home against Smithtown East.