Story by Eli Ruiz
For the better part of three quarters, what was arguably the best match-up of the Section IX championship games played this weekend, lived up to its billing.
“It was like looking into a mirror there in the first half,” said O’Neill star tailback Jerry Nasi, who finished Saturday night’s game with 248 rushing yards, four touchdowns and the Offensive Player of the Game award in a 35-14 James I. O’Neill victory over Liberty at Kingston’s Dietz Stadium on a chilly Saturday night.
A victory that was far more hard-fought than the final score would have you believe.
“The score doesn’t at all reflect how close this game was,” said O’Neill coach Anthony Finochio. “I mean [Liberty] coach [John] Wilhelm and his staff, they do a phenomenal job and I don’t think enough people appreciate what great coaches they are. I’m just happy we came out of here with the win, that’s all.”
Going into the contest, Wilhelm knew he couldn’t just key on Nasi. That was the mistake Sullivan West seemingly made in their Class C semifinal game against O’Neill (8-2) last weekend when junior quarterback Keegan West threw for 317 yards and five touchdowns.
Even the two teams’ meeting in week three offered little insight into Saturday’s game because Liberty, who lost that game 21-0, was playing on an entirely different level since that loss, winning six straight by an average margin of 39 points even as they lost star running back Kenny Jaycox to a season-ending knee injury early in that streak.
“That week three win against Liberty holds no bearing for us in Saturday’s game,” said O’Neill head coach Anthony Finochio in a mid-week interview with the Democrat. “They are a totally different team right now as far as I’m concerned,” Finochio added.
And speaking of concerns, both Liberty and O’Neill had shortened practice weeks to prepare for one another thanks to tropical storm Sandy. “With all they do on offense it’s definitely been a challenge preparing for Liberty with this short practice week,” said Finochio.
Regardless, Liberty came in Saturday, the underdog, a role that has suited the Indians quite well all season long including their big 35-18 upset win against highly regarded Millbrook in the Class C semifinal game last Friday afternoon.
And Liberty appeared ready to pounce right away. Junior Jericho Male exploited a seam and returned the opening kickoff all the way to the Raider 19. But the Indians, who couldn’t seem to get any offensive rhythm going early-on only netted four total yards on their first three plays from scrimmage. On fourth and six at the O’Neill 15, quarterback Quinn Jackson overthrew Atwoun Ackerley in the end-zone giving the Raiders the ball on downs. . Another missed opportunity in the red zone later in the half would eventually come back to haunt Liberty.
“We should have gone into halftime up by two scores, said Wilhelm. “Those missed opportunities really killed us. We were at the four on one of those.”
O’Neill’s first drive didn’t produce much offense either and they punted the ball, pinning Liberty back at its own 18-yard line. Four plays and an O’Neill penalty later, Jackson found an open Henry at the Raider 31 and the Indians were in business. It looked for a moment like Liberty (7-3) would waste another good opportunity when on third and nine, Jackson was dropped for a loss at the 25 by a seemingly unblocked Eric Wallace.
But on fourth and long, Jackson hit Henry, who was just completing his route. Henry showed off his hands and his concentration as he was able to slow his momentum just enough to keep one foot in-bounds inches from the front pylon giving Liberty a first and goal at the 1.
An offsides call on Liberty set them back to the five but it didn’t matter as Jackson rolled right and hit a diving Ackerley in the end-zone for the game’s first score. Henry’s PAT gave Liberty a 7-0 lead.
But O’Neill answered right back as Liberty’s onsides kick rolled out of bounds giving the Raiders great field position. On first down, Nasi ran the ball into Liberty territory at the 45 as the first quarter drew to a close. Three plays later it was vintage Nasi as he would juke his way to a 33-yard touchdown run that included a cut-back near the goal line that froze two Indian defenders in their tracks. The extra point by Axel Ender tied the game with just under 11 minutes left in the first half.
Liberty’s next drive started off in Raider territory at the 45. A personal foul call on O’Neill moved the ball to the Raider 30-yard line. On second down and nine, Jackson was flushed from the pocket and ran all the way to the eight. Another personal foul by O’Neill places the ball half the distance to the goal at the 4. Incredibly, Liberty could not score as Ehat Shehi was stuffed and fourth and goal.
The teams traded stalled drives and headed into the halftime knotted at 7-7.
O’Neill was set to receive the opening second half kickoff, and no doubt had to know what was coming. Liberty obliged with a perfect Henry squib kick that grazed O’Neill’s Chris Olave only to be recovered by Liberty’s Kevin Morgans, pumping up the Liberty faithful.
The Indians were back in business at about mid-field. Five plays later Jackson found Ackerley again in the end-zone for an 18-yard score. Henry’s PAT gave Liberty a 14-7 edge with 7:57 left in the third.
O’Neill fell on the subsequent Liberty onsides kick and Nasi wasted no time in getting the Raiders back on the board, breaking free on a 50-yard touchdown run that would tie the game at 14 after Ender’s PAT.
Asked what he told his team at the half, Finochio said, “I just told them to maintain their composure. We’ve been here before, last year, I mean last year against Burke we went into the half down and I just wanted them to maintain their composure. Our offense is gonna get a chance and once we get our tread I knew we’d be able to move the ball.”
A few drives later, Liberty found itself yet again at O’Neill’s doorstep. After a deep pass from Jackson to Branden Wilson resulted in a pass interference call on O’Neill, Liberty had a first down at the O’Neill 17. An illegal motion call on Wilson moved the Indians back to the 23 and a third-down pass from Jackson to Henry came up short of the first down. On 4th and 11, Jackson was dropped for another sack, this time by defensive end Chris Van Skyock. O’Neill took over at their own 28 and nine plays later, Nasi scored untouched from the seven yards out. The PAT by Ender would gave the Raiders a 21-14 lead.
Slowly and patiently, O’Neill took all of Liberty’s punches and started to assume control of the game.
“Such a hard-fought game,” said Nasi. “I mean, it was just like playing a replica. They’re just like us, the fight, the physicality.
“I’m just happy we were able to pull through. Regarding his amazing performance, Nasi would simply say, “My offensive line just set my game up a lot. They were just awesome.”
“Jerry’s always been a workhorse for us and once he finds a seam, it doesn’t matter how big or small the seam is he can accelerate through it and be off to the races,” said Finochio about his star back.
Wilhelm said his team just got overpowered by O’Neill’sbig offensive line.
“I really feel that their physicality really started to wear us down,” said an emotional Wilhelm. “We knew it was going to be tough, we knew they were big and physical and that was definitely a concern.
“I mean, we hung with them for a while and then finally that [O’Neill’s physicality] took over I think and they just started dominating us. I mean you could just see it, they started wearing us down.”
Regarding the missed opportunities in the red-zone, Wilhelm said plainly, “That hurts, that hurts, that hurts. But I’m just so proud of our kids. So proud.”
O’Neill will square off Friday night at Mahopac in the regional final against Woodlands of Section 1.
Rushing Jackson 18-70; Henry 9-19
Passing Jackson 8-18, 104 yds., 2 TDs
Receiving Henry 3-63; Ackerley 3-29
Tackles Saravia 8; Shehi 7; Henry 7
Rushing Nasi 26-248
Passing West 5-12, 59 yds and 1 TD
Receiving Chambers 3-47; Olave 2-12
Tackles Trainor 11; Baskerville 8; Kilner 8, Wallace 7