Bears Fall To Playoff-Bound Raiders As Turnover Woes Continue; Non-League Game Could Well Be A Preview Of First Round Playoff Tilt As Bears Control Their Own Destiny; Raiders Vow To Hone Their Edge To Facilitate Successful Playoff Run
James I. O’Neill 29, Tri-Valley 15
By RICHARD A. ROSS
GRAHAMSVILLE, NY—For all the apparent difference in their relative success and the lack thereof, 5-1 O’Neill and 1-5 Tri-Valley have several things in common. While the Raiders are already booked as the number-one seed from Division One for the October 28 playoff opener and the Bears must now run the table against Division II foes Fallsburg and Millbrook, the mission is the same: Make fewer mistakes, sustain drives and sharpen up or else….
For O’Neill Coach Anthony Finochio that “Or else” meaning elimination in the playoffs, can be avoided by his team looking even sharper and avoiding mental errors. “If we want to make a run through the playoffs we have to nix those in the bud and play flawless football,” he said following his team’s 29-15 win over a tough, physical Tri-Valley team that held leads at two separate times in this game including a 15-14 edge midway through the third quarter.
The “Or Else,” for Tri-Valley is infinitely more daunting.
The Bears turned the ball over three times in this game, thereby shooting themselves in their bullet-ridden feet yet again as Coach John Rusin described this day’s somber outcome as an ongoing sore point. “ A “broken record. It’s week in and week out,” he noted as the talented Bears continue to neutralize their fine play at times with costly errors.
Now in the eleventh hour of their season the Bears have no margin for further error as they prepare to play a pair of league games against Fallsburg and Millbrook.
To make the playoffs Tri-Valley must win both of those games and if they do, it will be O’Neill they will face in the first round of the playoffs. If this game is any indication, that could be an all-out war as both squads know what they’re up against.
Rusin believes if his team gets to the playoffs that they could “Make some serious noise.” I’m sure Finochio and his Raiders won’t take that challenge lightly…or else…
Rusin hammered the message to his troops following this latest loss that followed the same script. “We are turning the ball over way too much. Minus three is the story of this game. We moved the ball well, played good defense as we have throughout but we can’t keep giving people short fields and we can’t stall drives with turnovers,” he stated emphatically.
Rusin believes in his team, but eschews the notorious distinction of being the “best 1-5 team in Section Nine. “I’m tired of hearing the other team’s coach tell me we’re the toughest team they’ve played all year and that you beat us up and down the field and that we’re going to give next week’s opponent hell. Those are direct quotes,” Rusin avers but they are not the words he relishes in the least.
Yet for all of the heartbreak and the mélange of miscues, Tri-Valley is in position to benefit from the requirements of playoff contention, namely to emerge with a positive league record, thereby rendering all of these past weeks defeats meaningless.
Much has and will be said about this process whereby teams like Liberty could easily be 6-3 by season’s end, having lost two league games by a single point and find themselves on the outside looking in. You can be sure that the entire system will be scrutinized severely as it renders most of the games teams play as insignificant in terms of playoff entry.
Tri-Valley won the toss and elected to defer, a logical choice given the fact that its defense has consistently been its strongest suit all year. “Let’s set the tone! They’ve come here to try and pound us but don’t let them dictate the tempo o f the game,” Rusin implored.
Tyler Lopez, returning from his absence since the Pine Plains game, kicked the ball out of bounds and the Raiders set up at the 35. As expected the first carry went to junior workhorse Jerry Nasi, his first of 25 on the day, this one for a nine-yard gain. He took it again for a first down before Joe Mickelson tagged him for a loss.
Mickelson’s return from a hairline tibia fracture was a plus for the Bears. In his absence fellow senior Greg Swarthout has been calling the signals. Mickelson would play fullback in this tilt and would make a fine showing therein, but here on defense he showed his aggressive verve had not been dulled by his inactivity.
O’Neill committed a pair of offsides penalties, giving credence to Finochio’s contention about his team’s lack of mental focus at times. That doomed this first series and after an incomplete pass to Matt McCarthy, the Raiders got set to punt.
The Bears’ elation about their fine defensive stop was short-lived as Shatik Smith fumbled the punt and the Raiders recovered it at the Bears’ 20. Troy Rossi stopped Nasi in his tracks on first down. Nasi wove in out and for five before being dropped by Jesus Lozada bringing up third and five at the 15.Nasi met Brendan Tierney and Rossi on his next attempt.
The Raiders went to the air on fourth down as quarterback Keegan West hit McCarthy for the 15-yard TD at 7:08. O’Neill surrendered five yards on the PAT attempt by dint of their third offsides penalty and kicker Jordan Baskerville’s kick sailed wide right as the Raiders now led 6-0.
Mickelson carries brought a first down as Finochio called a time out after yelling, “Trips,” seeing a trio of T-V receivers in a formation he felt his team was unprepared to defend against. The Bears soon penetrated into Raider territory with their ground game. The chains kept moving as the Bears marched on with runs by Swarthout, Mickelson and a pitch to Lopez.
The drive continued as Swarthout converted a third and two run from the 25 to the Raiders’ 19. The Bears were moving the ball at will as they garnered a first and goal from the nine with 2:09 to go in the first quarter. O’Neill stiffened as the Bears faced a fourth and goal at the two as the quarter ended.
Mickelson was stopped and the Raiders took over at the three. Furious at having squandered their attempt to take the lead the Bears’ defense bore down on O’Neill looking for a safety. The Raiders barely avoided such on the first carry by Nasi. On a third and 11 it appeared they had Nasi in the end zone but the officials said no.
The ensuing punt was a short one giving the Bears the ball just outside the ten. Smith caught a ball coming back across the grain to bring the ball to the three. Cody Exner ran it in from the one at 7:44 to tie it at six- all. Anthony Beale gave the Bears the 7-6 lead with his PAT.
Lopez fired an onsides kick that was rolling loose before the Raiders recovered it. A flag signaled a late hit by T-V’s Aric Boyes affording the Raiders fine field position at their own 47. O’Neill tried a sweep with Kyle Kilner carrying but Rossi snuffed it out after a yard. The ball came loose but it was ruled to be after the play.
Facing a fourth and five the Raiders went to the Power I formation and Nasi got the needed yardage to the T-V 36. After an incomplete pass to McCarthy, West went to the air again but it was Smith who came up with the ball as he dove to take it away from intended receiver Chris Olave.
A jubilant Smith was lifted aloft by Brendan Tierney but as it would turn out, the Bears failed to capitalize on the break. Instead, their drive stalled and in a dramatic turn of events, they allowed O’Neill’s Amon Gerber to return a punt all the way to the house. Nasi ran in the two-point conversion out of the “Power I” formation to put the Raiders in the drivers’ seat to the tune of 14-7 with 2:37 left in the half.
The Bears worked to get the lead back with a run by Exner and a reception of a halfback option pass by the stalwart junior but a Mickelson fumble was recovered by O’Neill’s Zach Trainor to extinguish the threat. O’Neill carried the 14-7 lead into halftime after the Bears’ defense stymied O’Neill’s final drive that ended with a sack of West by Fred Dumond and Rossi and a trio of incomplete passes.
Rusin’s address to his troops at the half must have been a stern one given the turn of events.
The Bears began the second half with a return to the 33 by Exner. A big run by Exner was brought back by a block in the back. After a short gain by Tierney, Exner broke loose for a 60-yard TD run at 10:15 to make it 14-13.
O’Neill was called for offsides and Rusin replaced his PAT array with his offense to go for two. Mickelson took over at QB for this play and effected a sneak for the 15-14 lead.
Jesus Lozada denied Gerber a kickoff return as he zoomed in on the quick sophomore determined to not allow him game-breaking runback.
The Raiders went back to a steady diet of Nasi who soon had the chains moving in the Raiders’ favor to the O’Neill 41. With a fourth a three to go at the O’Neill 49, Nasi got the first down as officials issued a sideline warning to the T-V coaches.
McCarthy snared a pass as he ran in between Smith and John Monforte just moments after defensive coach Joe Porcaro had yelled for Smith to drop back. The ball now sat at the T-V 20 with 5:45 to go in the third quarter.
On a third and two, West hit McCarthy with a 12-yard TD pass at 4:20 for the 20-15 lead. Nasi carried it in for the two-point conversion to make it 22-15.
Again the Bears were moving the ball on the ground but an option pitch to Conor Walsh was recovered by Kilner snuffing out yet another T-V drive. Kilner carried it to the Bears’ 40. Nasi came up short on a third down play giving the Raiders a fourth and two at the Bears’ 28 as the quarter expired.
West got the first down on a keeper. The Bears worked assiduously to hold the Raiders out but Nasi twisted and turned his way to the 11. Lozada knocked Nasi back to the 14 on the next play. On a third down play the Raiders used effective trap blocking to spring Nasi for the nine-yard TD to the outside at 7:41 for the 28-15 lead.
A snap infraction on the center pushed the ball back on the PAT but Baskervile split the uprights anyway for the 29-15 lead.
The Bears began at their own 24. A roughing the passer penalty availed the Bears extra yardage as the Bears moved it with a pass and a reverse to the O”Neill 31. Down by two the Bears got another first down at the 20 with 3:58 to go but the clock was moving as Swarthout was caught behind the line of scrimmage by Chris VanSkyock. Facing a fourth and long back at the 27 the Bears failed to convert on a screen pass to Mickelson as the Raiders took over on downs with 2:22 to go.
O’Neill kept it on the ground to run out the clock. The Bears used their last time outs to no avail as they were unable to thwart a final fourth and inches. The game ended with O’Neill in possession of the ball and the victory.
Nasi took the win in stride acknowledging the fact that there is much yet to do. “We still have a lot of work to do. Tri-Valley was physical and fast, “ he said giving props to the Bears, “but we’ve got to get better each week.”
Finochio had already stated as much in his comments that began with praise for Nasi. “he finds the seams and does a good job. When you have a great running game it does open up passing lanes too,” he noted referencing the TD catches from McCarthy.
“The formula has been working and we’re trying to get better week to week,” he said. Asked if he had held anything back anticipating that the Bears might be the team the Raiders would face in the playoffs, Finochio quickly replied, “No, we play to win every game.”
Rusin’s words conveyed his disappointment, while he continued to cite his team’s toughness and work ethic. “Am I proud of them? Absolutely. Do I want more them? Absolutely. They’re a much better football team than their record shows but the left column is all anybody ever looks at. Repeating the mantra he will stress each and every day over the coming week, “We control our own destiny. But if we turn the ball over three times to Fallsburg, we will lose.”
Tri-Valley’s mission is to dampen the Comets’ Homecoming by garnering the win. If they do that, they will then turn their attention to talented Millbrook whom they host on their own Homecoming the following week to determine which team will face O’Neill on October 28.
O’Neill plays Livingston Manor Roscoe and Ellenville in its final two tune ups.
Tri-Valley stat line:
Rushing: Exner: 7/93 2TD’s; Mickelson: 16/60 2PT conversion; Swarthout: 9/34; Lopez: 2/7;Tierney: 1/2; .Total: 35/196.
Passing: Swarthout: 3/5 32YDS; Mickelson 1/1 13YDS.
Receiving: Exner: 2/21; Lopez: 1/15; Smith: 1/8.
Defense: Mickelson: 10 Tackles 6 Assists 1 Sack; Lozada: 9 Tackles 1 Assist; Tierney: 5 Tackles 4 Assists.
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