Last season, the Eastport South Manor football team enjoyed what was, at the time, the best season in program history, going 7-1 and earning a home playoff game for the first time ever. The Sharks lost that game, though, 14-0, to Bellport, leaving the team with an unsatisfied feeling going into the offseason.
The Sharks used last year’s playoff loss as motivation for this season—their mantra became “unfinished business.” They set goals to win the program’s first-ever playoff game and to go as deep into the playoffs as they could.
ESM lost, 29-7, at Sayville on Saturday afternoon in the Suffolk County Division III semifinals, officially ending its season—but it’s safe to say the Sharks were still able to settle the “unfinished business.”
ESM finished the regular season at 4-4 in Division III, good enough for the fifth seed in the playoffs, and the team was able to avenge an overtime regular-season loss at Westhampton Beach, defeating the Hurricanes, 12-7, for the program’s first playoff victory in its 11-year existence.
First-year head coach Bill Ashton had an emotional post-game meeting on the field with his team after Saturday’s loss and commended his players for their efforts throughout the season.
“I told them I was very proud of them and that we made history with this team,” he said. “A lot of people already do consider it our best season. We won some games last year, but we did lose in the first round, with a home playoff game. We felt like we needed to take that a step further, and we did with the win over Westhampton.
“But we felt like, had we beaten Sayville, we would have won the Long Island Championship,” Ashton added.
Defeating Sayville, which easily ran through its schedule unscathed this season, wasn’t going to be an easy task, and it showed early in Saturday’s game. Thanks to a few strong runs from Jake Hobbie, the Sharks were able to ride their opening drive to Sayville’s red zone, only to eventually be stopped on fourth-and-1.
A few plays into its first drive, Sayville quarterback Jack Coan connected with receiver Chris Rupp for a 62-yard touchdown pass with 7:47 remaining in the first quarter. The Golden Flashes added a two-point conversion to go up, 8-0.
Early in the second quarter, after ESM’s Nijay Brown missed a 29-yard field goal, Coan completed a 5-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Kelly, and, after the extra point, Sayville held a 15-0 lead with 6:12 remaining in the first half.
ESM drove down the field on the ensuing possession and had a fourth-and-goal on Sayville’s 3-yard line. ESM quarterback Matt Kane completed a pass to Patrick Minogue at the goal line, and it seemed that at least a portion of the ball crossed the line for the score—but the official ruled that Minogue did not break the plane of the goal, and the Sharks were forced to turn the ball over on downs.
It was a close call, one disputed by ESM—and it came at a key moment in the game.
“We looked at the tape, and it was clear that he crossed the goal line,” Ashton said. “[Minogue] catches the ball, and then the Sayville defender bounces him out of the end zone. That call changes the scope of the ball game.
“We had our opportunities,” he added. “I don’t know if it’s necessarily anyone’s fault, but we didn’t get any breaks, and sometimes you need that against a really good team like Sayville.”
The Golden Flashes didn’t waste much time to get another touchdown in the third quarter. Coan again connected with Rupp, this time on a 40-yard pass, and, after the extra point, Sayville held a commanding 22-0 lead.
On the next drive, ESM took the ball into Sayville’s red zone, but with 4:20 to go in the third, the Sharks fumbled, and Sayville recovered to end the drive.
The Sharks finally broke through with a touchdown with 7:27 remaining in the game. After Sayville stuffed a number of runs by ESM, the Sharks decided to go through the air for the score. Dan McCormick caught a 1-yard pass from Kane; Brown’s extra point helped cut Sayville’s lead to 22-7.
Just a few plays into the ensuing drive, though, Sayville’s star running back Matt Selts broke free for a 72-yard touchdown, which put things out of reach for the Sharks.
While ESM certainly had its opportunities, Ashton said he was encouraged by the fact that his team gave Sayville its toughest game of the season. The Golden Flashes won their games by an average of 38 points per game, and ESM held them to their lowest point total of the season. The Sharks also racked up 400 yards of offense, by far the most any team has put up against Sayville this season.
“Nobody played them like we did this year,” Ashton said. “We came up with a great plan, and for the most part we did what we wanted to do. We just didn’t get a bounce here and a bounce there. We got a couple of bad calls.
“We’re hoping to be [Sayville] in a couple of years. They’re a great model to have,” he continued. “I truly believe they’re going to win the Rutgers Trophy [for the Long Island Championship]. We know that’s what we’re working toward. From the first game to the last game, we improved tremendously. We hung with them—we played hard and didn’t give up.”
ESM will say goodbye to half of its team, with 18 seniors expected to graduate in June. Running backs Hobbie and Mark Zaharis will be gone, along with receivers McCormick, Danny Dowsett and Justin Pugal. Both of the team’s kickers, Brown and Tristan Luccari, are also graduating. And the majority of the Sharks’ linemen, which were vital to the team’s success, also will be leaving, including Kyle Sullivan, Bryant Stiles, Sam D’Ambrosio, Vin Stumpo and Chris Munoz.
Ashton said that Sullivan was a critical part of turning around the defense in the middle of the season. Since he already started and had a big responsibility at center on offense, Ashton said he was hesitant to give Sullivan even more responsibilities as the starting middle linebacker on defense. He said Sullivan did everything that was asked of him, though. “He made all the difference for us,” he said.
Ashton said he is nominating a few players for some prestigious postseason awards, the winners of which won’t be announced until early December. Kane, who threw for 1,440 yards and 10 touchdowns, was nominated for the Boomer Esiason Award as the top quarterback in Suffolk County. Minogue (17 sacks) was nominated for the Rob Burnett Award as the top defensive lineman in the county. And Dowsett was nominated for a National Football Foundation Award.