For two quarters Friday night against Deer Park, the Eastport South Manor football team looked nothing like the second-ranked team in Division III, nothing like the squad that notched jaw-dropping wins on the road in the weeks prior.
For one half of football, the Sharks looked just plain bad.
How a halftime pep talk and strategy session can change it all. In the second half, they weren’t overmatched; they were overpowering in every aspect of the game. Behind a career-high three touchdowns from senior tailback Cole Zeller and a defense that held the Falcons to just two second-half first downs, the Sharks roared back from a 10-point halftime deficit to record a 22-10 triumph over Deer Park.
According to ESM head coach Paul Mastronardi, it’s the quickest that a Sharks team has reached four wins in their history. Now 4-1, they are poised to finish with a flurry and put themselves in prime position for the Division III playoffs.
“I’ve been on varsity since I was a freshman, and we’ve never had anything like this,” said senior lineman Joe Pesce. “It’s been really enjoyable. I’m with my best friends, blocking for my best friends, having fun in practice all the time, and we’re having a lot of success.”
With three games to go, the Sharks are through the meat of their schedule, having already faced Islip, Sayville, Hauppauge and Deer Park, all of which figure to make the postseason. Down the stretch, ESM faces squads that entered the weekend with a combined 2-10 mark. It starts with a visit to Bellport on Saturday, October 19, at 1:30 p.m. On the same field a year ago, the Clippers dismantled ESM, 38-13.
“We’re giving them the tools and putting them in position to be successful, but the kids are the ones doing it,” added Mastronardi. “They’re buying into it. They’re the ones who worked in the offseason and worked hard in the weight room.”
That much was evident in the second half, when ESM ran the ball at will against a Deer Park defense that had held it to two first downs in the first half. On their second possession, which started at the Falcon 25-yard line after a punt snap went awry, the Sharks finally got on the scoreboard on a Zeller 14-yard run around the left end, making the score 10-6 with 2:38 left in the third quarter.
A startling contrast from the first half, ESM gained yardage in large chunks the rest of the way. After forcing a Deer Park punt, the Sharks marched 71 yards on just four plays, the final 43 coming with Zeller outracing the Falcon defense to the right side of the end zone early in the fourth.
“We came in at halftime and we all knew we didn’t play very well,” said Zeller, who finished with more than 150 rushing yards on the night. “Offensively, we didn’t really have to make any adjustments; we just had to execute better and we did. The offensive line was great in the second half.”
So was the defense, which notched a safety, recovered a fumble and intercepted a pass, all in the fourth quarter. All the while, Zeller, Jake Hobbie and Mike Bianco milked the clock and moved the sticks. Zeller capped his first-ever three-touchdown day with a 1-yard run with 1:22 remaining in the game.
“In the second half, we got back to doing what we do best, which is pound the football and control the line of scrimmage,” Mastronardi said.
Zeller and Co. had zero running room in the first half against Deer Park’s front seven. The Sharks waited until the 7:21 mark of the second quarter to register a first down, and when the half ended on a 28-yard field goal by the Falcons’ Kyle Lessick, upping the visitors’ lead to 10-0, ESM had mustered just 26 yards of offense.
The defense was only part of the problem; the other was getting the Deer Park attack off the field. Jasawn Thompson knifed through and around the Shark defense, racking up an incredible 210 yards in the first two quarters. It included four runs of at least 30 yards, including a 48-yard scoring run and another 45-yard romp that set up Lessick’s boot as time expired.
Thompson had no such luck thereafter as he was held to 41 yards in the final two quarters, a total that was buoyed by a 36-yard jaunt on the Falcons’ second play from scrimmage. Otherwise, the Shark defense bottled him up.
“We clogged up the middle and forced him to bounce it outside, and our guys had outside contain and made tackles in the backfield,” Pesce said.