O’Neill’s Defense Makes A Huge Late Stand And Liberty Misses The Game-Winning Field Goal In An Epic High School Classic; League Result Puts O’Neill One Win Away From A Playoff Berth and Liberty Having To Run The Table Vs Ellenville and Sullivan West
James I. O’Neill 14, Liberty 13
By RICHARD A. ROSS
LIBERTY, NY—Sometimes it’s the narrowest margin that separates contrasting outcomes in life. In a sense we’re always walking that tightrope knowing full well that in some instances things will work in our favor, while at other times they just won’t go our way.
One right answer on a test can be the difference between passing and failing; one quick swerve on the road can avoid a catastrophic collision. Even more poignantly, as we saw on 9/11, precious life can hang in the balance in a fateful second as a burning skyscraper is about to collapse. In such critical instances a split second decision can be the difference between life and death
While sports mirrors life in its teetering outcomes and offers the compelling drama of games that literally hang in the balance, we must remember that they are after all, just games. Win or lose, the outcomes must remain in perspective.
That said, in clashes such as the epic down-to-the-wire division encounter between host Liberty and visiting James I. O’Neill, won 14-13 by the latter on September 17, the captivating allure of a high school classic whose result would not be manifested until the game’s very final seconds, was indeed a reminder of how narrow the margin can be between exultation and heart-rending disappointment.
For Liberty which came into this fray having scored 94 points over its first two wins of the season and playing its first league game, this was to be an emotional first-step towards returning to the playoffs, a place they’ve been for the past two years. More so, the Indians have dedicated themselves towards winning it all and they most certainly still can do that.
But succumbing by one point after recovering an O’Neill fumble, having a first-and-goal at the Raiders’ nine –yard line and seeing things unfold the way they did with a dropped pass in the end zone, the inability to surmount O’Neill’s staunch run defense and then missing a game-winning 22-yard field goal by a kicker for whom this ordinarily represents a chip shot was a shocking result.
“That’s football,” said Liberty Coach John Wilhelm who knew that his team had squandered a win by dint of excessive penalties and missed opportunities. Ever the realist and always focused on the next step, Wilhelm will now guide his young Tribe towards keeping their focus and winning against Ellenville on what else, Pride Weekend, in order to stay in the hunt.
As for O”Neill, they showed immense character down the stretch and for that matter, most of the second half as they played what Coach Anthony Finochioy called “Raider football,” to withstand the most daunting threat. To be sure, O’Neill’s heroics which up to that point had centered on great second half blocking, relentless tackling led by Eric Wallace’s 15 takedowns, and the outstanding running of workhorse junior Jerry Nasi were capped off by a goal line stand of epic proportions.
O’Neill won the toss and elected to defer. As Libety junior Kenny Jaycox received the ball and ran it back to the Raiders’ 45, the home crowd had its first electrifying rush of excitement. Liberty offered up a mix of runs with junior Anthony Covington, senior quarterback Marshon Williams and Jaycox as they advanced the ball to the 17 before faltering on fourth down allowing O’Neill to take over on downs at their 16.
Sophomre Keegan West was calling the signals. A false start hampered O’Neill on its first play but an option pitch to Nasi proved to be profitable as did the next few plays on the ground until Covington registered a sack on fourth down of Keegan and the Indians got the ball back.
Liberty was unable to sustain its drive on this series and Ryan Henry’s fake punt was snuffed out giving the Raiders the ball on the Liberty 40. A pass to senior tight end Matt McCarthy was key as the first quarter ended 0-0 but with O’Neill threatening at the nine-yard line.
A steady diet of carries by Nasi soon yielded a one-yard TD at 9:48 of the second quarter. The PAT failed and O’Neill led 6-0.
Liberty’s ground advance was undercut by a chop block call that set them back with a first and 25 at midfield but the Indians overcame the challenge with a great catch by Henry that brought the Tribe to the Raiders’ seven-yard line. A TD by Jaycox was called back on a holding penalty but Williams connected with Henry again, this time for a 20-yard TD with 4:15 remaining in the period to tie the game at six-all. Henry’s PAT gave Liberty a 7-6 lead.
An onside kick was recovered by O’Neill’s Bobby Jackson and once again the Raiders had a short field at their own 46. Jaycox caused a fumble which O’Neill recovered but the Raiders were forced to punt. Neither team scored and the Indians took the 7-6 lead into the half.
O’Neill recovered Liberty’s opening onsides kick but went three and out to start the third quarter. The punt was partially blocked and Liberty took over at the Raiders 45. Impressive runs by Jaycox, Williams and Covington got the ball to the 12. Covington scored from there sailing airborne over the goal line at 6:20 for the 13-6 lead. Henry’s PAT ricocheted off the bottom of the crossbar. Little could anyone imagine that that would constitute the difference in the game’s final score.
Liberty now had the momentum as Henry recovered his own onsides kick but the Indians didn’t capitalize on the advantage and went three and out. Henry’s punt pinned O’Neill at its own 16 but Nasi was about to go to work taking the ball on nearly every down. The quarter ended with the Raiders on Liberty 15.
A great call on a reverse placed the ball in the hands of junior Derrike Shrieve as Liberty bit on the play and went off in search of Nasi who no longer had the ball. Now the Raider set up with a first down at the four and Nasi took it in from there to make it 13-12 still in Liberty’s favor. He then toted in the two-point conversion with 11;24 remaining in the game for O’Neill’s first lead as they now were on top 14-13.
A great punt by junior Jordan Baskerville who had come out of the game on O’Neill’s first series with a knee injury pinned Liberty at its 15. The Raiders dug in and Eric Wallace sacked Williams. O’Neill got the ball at its own 45 as Liberty coaches barked, “We need a stop.”
They got just that as Covingston knocked the ball loose and Tiago Mastrogiovanni recovered it giving Liberty the ball at the Raiders’ 43.
A facemask penalty by O’Neill helped the Liberty cause as they now faced a first and five at the 42 with just over seven minutes to go. Williams completed a short pass to Javier Baez. After Covington racked up another first down, Liberty was again flagged this time for holding. Now it was first and 20 at the 46 with 4:30 to go.
The Williams to Henry air express worked again yielding a first down on the 22. Five yard runs by Williams and Covington brought it to the 12and with 2:30 to go Williams got a first and goal at the nine.
On the very next play he hit Jaycox in the end zone for what would have been the winning TD but the speedy Fallsburg transfer student couldn’t hold on to the ball. The Indians tried to bang it in with a dive by Covington that went to the five. O’Neill was flagged for encroachment which put the ball on the three. After Williams was stopped in his tracks and with 35.7 seconds remaining. Liberty called a time out and set up its final play, a 22-yard field goal attempt by Henry.
“Wide right,” went Henry’s kick and with it the Indians’ hope of a cathartic comeback win. Those were the same famous words used to descirbe the Buffalo Bill demise against the Giants in Superbowl XXV in 1991 as Scott Norwood missed a 47-yard attempt with the Bills trailing by a single point with eight seconds left in the game.
By stark contrast to Liberty’s sinking emotions, O’Neill’s players and coaches erupted in joy at the last minute reprieve.
“Stick a fork in me. I’m done,” quipped Coach Finochioy. “My kids showed unbelievable heart today. They showed that they had the heart of a champion. They really stepped up. I’m so impressed. I’ve never seen a group of young men that played through adversity like this before,” he said as his voice reflected overwhelming emotion.
“Nasi is a workhorse. It doesn’t get any bigger that this he added,” agreeing that this game’s was Liberty’s for the taking and that his team took it back. “Liberty controlled us in the first half and we knew when we came out in the second half that we had to establish Raider football again and run the ball and my kids did that. The offensive line did an unbelievable job including my tight ends.
Jordan Baskerville is tough as nails. He took a knee injury early on and came back in,” he added.
Nasi was quick to deflect the praise. “It it wasn’t for the offensive line I don’t think I would have been going anywhere.”
Liberty Coach John Wilhelm had already spoken to his troops when this writer got to interview him. As the Indians exited the field Wilhelm had this to say: “We hurt ourselves today with too many penalties. But we did play well. The kids ran hard and Marshon threw some really nice passes to Henry but again too many mistakes.
We did put ourselves in a position to win. Hopefully the next one goes our way. Now we’re in a must-win situation as we face Ellenville and then Sullivan West,” he added.
Ellenville’s coach Tony Borriello was Wilhelm’s coach and is truly his mentor. With the game slated to be played on Liberty’s Pride Weekend and with 0-3 Ellenville and 2-1 Liberty both having to win to assure themselves of a playoff berth, this game is going to be immense to say the least. “Ellenville is hungry and we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Liberty Stat Line:
Passing: Marshon Williams 7/12/107 with one TD.
Rushing: Williams 16/74; Anthony Covington 11/52 with one TD; Kenny Jaycox 8/34
Receiving: Ryan Henry 3/83 with one TD; Javier Baez 2/9; Covington 2/15;
Defense: Baez six tackles; Jaycox nine tackles, one sack, one forced fumble; Covington six tackles, one sack, two forced fumbles; Tiago Mastrogiovanni one fumble recovery; Tony Saravia 11 tackles and Danny Hopkins three tackles and one sack.
Liberty is now 2-1 (0-1 OCIAA), while O’Neill is 2-1 (1-0) OCIAA. The Raiders host Sullivan West on September 23. The winner will be assured of a playoff spot.
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