By Rob Potter
KINGSTON Call it nerves, playoff jitters or just plain sloppy football. James I. O’Neill fumbled four times in the first quarter of its Section IX Class C football semifinal game against Tri-Valley Friday afternoon at Dietz Stadium in Kingston.
Despite the shaky start and trailing 7-0 after the early miscues, The Red Raiders settled down in the second half to score three touchdowns and put away Tri-Valley 28-7. With the victory, O’Neill (7-2) will meet John S. Burke in the Class C final Saturday at Dietz Stadium.
“We had the four fumbles in the first quarter and Tri-Valley scored off one of them,” O’Neill coach Anthony Finochio said. “It was a case of our players being nervous. We have a pretty young team.
“But we recovered from those fumbles, got our offense going and our defense played very well.”
As Finochio noted, Tri-Valley (3-6) made O’Neill pay just once for all of the turnovers, taking a 7-0 lead after Greg Swarthout connected with wide receiver Conor Walsh on a 20-yard touchdown midway through the first quarter. That followed the second O’Neill fumble recovered by Tri-Valley’s Joe Mickelson. But the Bears could do no more against a stout O’Neill defense.
“They have a very good team,” Swarthout said of the Raiders. “They are strong and physical. They just wore us down in the second half. We were trying our best, but we got tired.”
O’Neill tied the score at 7-7 in the second quarter on a 20-yard touchdown run by Jerry Nasi.
The Raiders busted the game open with three second half touchdowns The turning point came when safety Saahil Fruitwala recovered a Cody Exner fumble on Tri-Valley’s 8-yard line early in the third quarter. Two plays later, Nasi ran 5 yards up the middle and into the end zone to give his team a 14-7 advantage.
With 4:19 left in the third quarter, O’Neill quarterback Keegan West ran for a 2-yard touchdown to increase his team’s lead to 21-7.
Nasi scored the final TD of the game with 3:31 to go in the fourth quarter. His 6-yard run gave the Raiders a 28-7 advantage.
Like Swarthout, T-V Coach John Rusin thought that the Raiders seemed to have more energy than the Bears as the game progressed.
“They just wore us down,” Rusin said. “They ran the ball well and scored those three touchdowns in the second half.”
Rusin also took note of how his players performed.
“I am very proud of our guys,” Rusin said. “They kept playing hard and never gave up. They are a great group of guys.”
Finochio concurred. “You have to give Tri-Valley credit, they came out and played hard.”
Swarthout kept his head up following the loss.
“It feels good to reach the Class C semifinals,” he said. “At one point this season, were were 1 and 5. We could have folded then, but we didn’t. We didn’t quit and kept playing hard. We won our next two games to make it to the playoffs.”
Note: Friday’s semifinal was the final scholastic football game for 14 T-V seniors. They are: Anthony Beale, Fred Dumond, Jon Edwards, Tyler Lopez, Andrew Malone, Shawn Markle, Joe Mickelson, John Monforte, James-henry Osterhoudt, Rafael Ramirez, Josue Ramos, Troy Rossi, Greg Swarthout and Conor Walsh.
Rushing: Jerry Nasi, 29 carries, 225 yards, three touchdowns.
Rushing: Brendan Tierney, 4 carries for 40 yards
Passing: Greg Swarthout, a 20-yard TD to Conor Walsh
Defense: Brendan Tierney, 12 solo tackles, two assisted tackles, one quarterback sack, Aric Boyes, 10 tackles, one forced fumble; Joe Mickelson, eight tackles, two fumble recoveries; Greg Swarthout, one fumble recovery, one interception.