As you can see in the headlines, the big prize in our Westchester/Putnam football all-stars went to New Rochelle’s Joe Clarke. The top coaching honor went to his coach, Lou DiRienzo, who earned the award by winning a somewhat improbable Class AA state championship by rallying his team to play its best football when it mattered most.
First, a quick word on the player of the year. This was certainly the toughest year for me in the last three. In my eyes, there were SIX strong candidates: New Rochelle’s Clarke, Khalil Edney and Jason Ceneus; Iona Prep’s Chris Cooper and Mario Biaggi; and Somers’ Stefano Bicknese. Edney quarterbacked the Huguenots to the state title. Biaggi was the area’s most productive offensive player. Bicknese was an absolute dynamo on both sides of the ball. Ceneus and Clarke were the same, both capable of big-play TDs while also serving as key cogs on the area’s best defense (by far).
In the end, I felt Clarke deserved a slight edge. He was arguably the area’s best two-way football player, but that’s a claim Cooper, Bicknese and even his teammate Ceneus can make, too. So what allowed Clarke to nose out the others in a photo finish were these two factors: 1. The fact he played defense on a defense-first state champion; 2. His impact on the kicking game.
As you can read in the story, the last part cannot be understated. Add up the entire package and it’s no surprise that when I talked to three opposing coaches about New Rochelle, all three said Clarke was the player they feared the most.
— As for the selection process, here’s a quick explanation: I contacted every coach (or, by extension, an assistant coach or athletic director) in Westchester and Putnam Counties by e-mail for input on his team. I also had several conversations either by phone or in person, then put the teams together.
Anyway, congrats to all those who were selected in Westchester/Putnam and in Rockland. It was another great season. As always, I appreciate every one of you who participated in the discussion.
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NEW ROCHELLE — Joe Clarke swore he never meant to show off. Each action came as natural to him as a handshake. No, he didn’t need two hands on that catch. Yes, he ran right past that left tackle. And, no, for sure, no one ever taught him how to punt like that.
“Yeah, everything kicking-wise and other stuff, it’s all pretty natural to me,” he said.
By the time New Rochelle had finished its season, Clarke scored 10 touchdowns as a tight end; recorded 61/2 sacks at defensive end; kicked off; kicked extra points; and punted balls to the moon and back. But the senior accomplished something else for the Class AA state champs that earned him The Journal News Westchester/Putnam player of the year honors: He made the opposition shudder.
“No. 11 is the guy I worried about,” Orchard Park coach Gene Tundo said.
And Tundo didn’t even wait until kickoff. Before New Rochelle beat the defending state champ 34-6 last month at the Carrier Dome to win the title, Tundo’s assistant coach caught Clarke blasting punts into the vast Dome sky.
“That ball was scraping the top of that building,” Tundo said. “I’ve never seen pro and college guys punt like that.”
Of course, the Huguenots — the second state champions in program history — had seen Clarke’s punting exploits as a junior. As a senior, it was his progression in other areas that transformed him into a star.
At tight end, he caught 26 passes for 487 yards as quarterback Khalil Edney’s top option. That included palming a short pass one-handed and burning the turf for a 55-yard touchdown in the sectional final. He also made two dramatic catches on the last-minute, game-winning drive to stun Shaker in the state semifinals.
The latter was Clarke’s second winning touchdown in the last minute; he also leaped over a defender to beat North Rockland during the regular season.
“I only had about three catches a game, so every time I got the ball, I wanted to make a big play that stood out,” he said.
On defense, Clarke produced the 6 1/2sacks and another 6 1/2 tackles for loss, but also had two interceptions. And — as if the offense, defense and punting hadn’t kept him busy enough — the 6-foot-3, 210-pounder adopted two new roles as a senior. He began the season as a kickoff specialist and ended it as the place kicker.
Clarke, often winded from catching or blocking for a touchdown, missed a few extra points, but his old-school, toe-style kicking stabilized one of New Rochelle’s weaknesses just in time for the playoffs. It even forced him to squeeze in a few wardrobe changes, swapping his regular cleat for a squared-toed shoe for kickoffs.
In fact, wearing that shoe, Clarke made a key tackle on the kickoff following his go-ahead touchdown against Shaker. Then, with no time to change, he made the clinching interception wearing two different shoes.
“If you look at the film, you see this big, ugly, black, square-toed shoe on,” New Rochelle coach Lou DiRienzo said. “I told him he was going to have to play in the Dome with that.”
Clarke’s accomplishments have complicated his future possibilities rather than simplified them. He had long considered himself a basketball player first but has begun to reconsider. Maine, Rhode Island and Stony Brook have shown interest in him as anything from a wide receiver or tight end to an outside linebacker.
And he still hasn’t shunned the notion of punting.
“This football season really changed my mind,” he said. “What’s more important to me is to get the best education that I can possibly get. Whoever is giving me the best scholarship and the most competition, that’s where I want to go.”
The rest will come naturally. Trust him.
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Khalil Edney, Sr., New Rochelle: The 6-foot-4 Edney led the Huguenots to a state championship, passing for 1,408 yards and 19 touchdowns while throwing just four interceptions. He also led the team in rushing with 581 yards and ran for five touchdowns. His finest moment? A last-minute, game-winning drive in the state semifinals.
Mike Amicucci, Jr., Harrison: Amicucci led a balanced offense with 102 carries, 832 yards and nine touchdowns rushing. He also caught three touchdowns and averaged 40 yards per kickoff return. On defense, he served as an every-down corner.
Stefano Bicknese, Sr., Somers: This explosive running back and playmaking safety has begun to draw Division I-AA interest after a banner season that included 1,456 yards rushing and 22 total touchdowns. He also had four interceptions and was the physical and mental leader of the Class A champ.
Tim Soave, Jr., Dobbs Ferry: Despite constant focus from opponents, the bullish 240-pound fullback rushed for 1,308 yards and 16 touchdowns in just eight games, topping 100 yards in all but one. He was also a force on the defense line, totaling 62 tackles and four sacks. He earned an invitation to Texas to participate in the U.S. Army National Combine for top junior prospects.
Joe Festo, Sr., Somers: The 5-foot-9, 155-pound Festo caught a section-best 40 passes for 795 yards and eight touchdowns despite an offense that averaged just 12 pass attempts per game. Festo returned seven punts for 186 yards, including a score.
Jack Lambert, Sr., John Jay: In just eight games, the future North Carolina lacrosse player accounted for 30 touchdowns, breaking the program record for a season . The triple-threat quarterback/wide receiver went 30 of 45 for 467 yards passing, caught 27 passes for 407 yards and rushed for a team-best 827 yards and 15 scores.
Andrew Aquilino, Sr., Rye: As a two-year, two-way tackle, Aquilino evolved into the leader of a rebuilt line. The 6-foot-3, 275-pounder was a force on both sides of the ball and was considered one of the top linemen in a league loaded with some of Section 1’s best.
Charlie Credendino, Sr., Harrison: The 6-foot-3, 310-pound, fourth-year starter led the Huskies to an unbeaten regular season, including an emotional shutout victory over Rye that snapped Harrison’s rivalry record nine-game losing streak. The Fordham commit was a standout at guard and defensive tackle.
Robby Lorden, Sr., White Plains: Lorden drew rave reviews from opposing coaches. At 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, he played center, guard, defensive tackle, defensive end and linebacker in addition to every special teams unit. He led the defense in both solo tackles and assists and has drawn interest from the likes of Hamilton, Dickinson, RPI and Franklin & Marshall.
O’Shane Morris, Sr., Iona Prep: The 6-foot-4, 280-pound tackle led a big, physical Iona Prep offensive line that powered one of the area’s most productive offenses. Morris, a two-year starter, has attracted Division I interest, including a scholarship offer from I-AA Elon.
Dan Pomposello, Sr., Stepinac: In his third season as a starter, the 6-foot-4, 315-pound tackle has begun to populate the boards of Division I and II colleges. He has received strong interest from Coastal Carolina, Monmouth, Southern Connecticut, Merrimack and Pace.
Mario Biaggi, Sr., Iona Prep: The second-year starter became a two-way threat this season, accounting for an area-best 250.3 yards per game. He rushed for 1,002 yards and 10 touchdowns, but also went 118 of 179 for 1,487 yards and 11 touchdowns through the air. Biaggi did not lose a fumble in his two varsity seasons.
Devin Lopez, Jr., Sleepy Hollow: The first-year varsity player exploded with 1,310 yards and 18 touchdowns passing and 761 yards and seven touchdowns rushing. He compiled 349 yards in Sleepy’s first win over rival Ossining since 1983 and led the team to a surprise berth in the Class A championship game.
Da’Sean Downey, Sr., Woodlands: At an athletic 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, Downey earned Class C/D lineman of the year honors after recording 70 tackles, 12 sacks and three forced fumbles for the Class C champ. He had three sacks to earn defensive MVP honors at the Senior Bowl and has garnered Division I interest from UMass, Marist and Albany.
Ray Ganley, Sr., New Rochelle: The 6-foot-2, 210-pound “Macho” was known for a tireless motor despite playing the entire postseason on a torn meniscus. He had 58 tackles, including 31 solo, 4 1/2 sacks and 5 1/2 tackles for loss and forced two fumbles. Ganley earned postgame accolades for his defense after the Section 1 final and state quarterfinals.
Tommy Hopkins, Sr., Westlake: The behemoth 6-foot-6, 305-pound Hopkins commited to UConn last spring. In his third season as a starter, the two-way tackle helped pave the way for teammate Dan Bassi’s 960 yards rushing and had 65 tackles and five sacks on defense.
Dylan Owen, Sr., Somers: At 6-foot-5, 235 pounds, Owen was the most athletic member of the Class A champ’s dominant offensive and defensive lines. He had 66 tackles and six sacks as a 16-year-old senior, just scratching the surface of his vast potential.
Tom Dedivani, Sr., Stepinac: At a modest 5-foot-9, 190 pounds, the two-year standout averaged nine tackles a game. Coach Mike O’Donnell said he was the team’s MVP and “one of the hardest hitters we’ve had in a long time.” Dedivani has garnered Division II interest.
Terrence Holden, Sr., New Rochelle: The 6-foot-1, 180-pounder converted from safety this season and posted 56 tackles, including 39 solo, 2 1/2 sacks, eight tackles for loss and had two interceptions. He also caught 16 passes for 237 yards and a score on offense.
Joe Lombardo, Sr., Somers: A nagging early-season ankle injury never slowed down Lombardo, who followed in the footsteps of older brothers Rob and Anthony. He had a hand in a team-best 113 tackles and rushed for 686 yards and six scores as the fullback.
Nick Reisman, Sr., Tuckahoe: This bullish 210-pound, two-way standout running back/linebacker earned postgame honors in the Section 1 final as well as the Class D state quarterfinals and semifinals. He also played full-time on defense despite rushing 197 times for 1,191 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Jason Ceneus, Sr., New Rochelle: The state final MVP delivered key plays in all three phases. He ran for 568 yards and six scores on just 84 carries and caught 14 passes for 278 yards and two scores. He also had 49 tackles and four interceptions on defense and served as a dangerous kick returner, scoring the only points in a key 6-0 win at Mahopac.
Chris Cooper, Sr., Iona Prep: Given the opportunity to play both ways, this Division I prospect had a team-best 45 receptions for 610 yards and eight touchdowns. He also returned an interception for a score at cornerback, where he was a three-year starter. Delaware and Stony Brook have already offered scholarships.
Raishaun McGhee, Sr., Rye Country Day: The Harvard-bound two-way star rushed for a team-best 866 yards and threw for 729 yards and eight touchdowns after converting to quarterback for his senior season. At defensive back, his primary position, the first-team all-New England pick had a hand in 93 tackles.
Tyrone Barber, Jr., Woodlands: The Hamilton transfer was a constant threat to score for the Class C champs. He rushed for 806 yards and 12 scores on just 91 carries and turned eight of his five receptions and three of his seven kickoff returns into touchdowns. In all, the running back/linebacker averaged a TD once every five touches.
Chris Rhue, Sr., Mahopac: In just eight games, Rhue, a quarterback/running back, returned from injury to lead the Indians with 801 yards rushing and eight touchdowns. He also threw a touchdown, caught six passes for 136 yards and, as a defensive back, had an interception in a 6-0 loss to eventual state champ New Rochelle.
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COACH OF THE YEAR
Lou DiRienzo, New Rochelle: The veteran coach bolstered his impressive resume with an improbable run to the Class AA state championship. His Huguenots posted six shutouts, but their ability to regroup on offense transformed the season. Five of its six-highest scoring games of the year came in the playoffs, capped by a thorough 34-6 victory over defending champ Orchard Park to claim the program a second state title.
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QB: Vin Nicita, Sr., Harrison
RB: Marquez Jackson-Allen, So., Mamaroneck
RB: Shaquille Townsend, Sr., Iona Prep
WR: Mustafaa Dais, Jr., Hackley
WR: Austin Jones, Sr., Iona Prep
TE: Jack Hasselmann, Sr., Rye
OL: Dan Campbell, Sr., Somers
OL: Frank Curanaj, Sr., Sleepy Hollow
OL: Justin Douglas, Sr., New Rochelle
OL: Connor O’Neill, Sr, Lakeland
OL: Jason Valvano, Sr., John Jay
ATH: Tyler Keech, Sr., John Jay
ATH: Joe McDermott, Jr., Hackley
K: Chris Beato, Sr., Panas
DL: Jakob Calvini, Jr., Rye Neck
DL: Frank Golinello, Jr., Brewster
DL: Jon Miller, Sr., Pelham
DL: Mike Simone, Sr., Mahopac
LB: Joey Bellantoni, Sr., Tuckahoe
LB: Kyle Bonci, Sr., Iona Prep
LB: Brady Condron, Sr., Byram Hills
LB: Brent Lobien, Sr., Horace Greeley
DB: Gavin Harley, Sr., New Rochelle
DB: Justin Riccio, Sr., Irvington
DB: Robert Waldman, Sr., Harrison
ATH: Nick Mariano, Sr., Yorktown
ATH: Andrew Verboys, Sr., Scarsdale
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QB: Justin Davidov, Jr., Ossining; John Decker, Sr., Somers; Greg DiCarlo, Sr., Eastchester; Dan Hoffer, Sr., Stepinac; Andrew Livingston, So., Rye; Danny McCarthy, Sr., Mamaroneck; Brian McNeil, Sr., Brewster; Jackson Stone, Sr., Edgemont.
RB: John Brophy, Jr., Panas; Ryan Burnett, Sr., Stepinac; Dan Bassi, Sr., Westlake; Steve Candelaria, Sr., Ossining; George DiFiore, Jr., Ardsley; Jimmy Flaherty, Jr., Lakeland; Nick Greto, Sr., Pleasantville; Nick Grous, Sr., Croton-Harmon; Jason Ippolito, Sr., Port Chester; Ray Jackson, Sr., Woodlands; Jake Marino, Jr., Harrison; Connor Morley, Jr., Byram Hills; Kevin Nathanson, Sr., Harrison; Joey Nickerson, Sr., Fox Lane; Robby Nigro, Sr., Mamaroneck; Fernando Solis, Sr., Brewster; Francisco Wilson-King, Sr., Saunders.
WR: Dylan Eddy, Sr., Woodlands; Joe Gervasi, Sr., Carmel; Gabe Kardish, Sr., Ardsley; Mat Marino, Sr., Mamaroneck; Charlie Montgomery, Sr., Pleasantville; Ron Richards, Sr., Woodlands; Matt Tormey, Sr., Bronxville.
TE: Christian Dedvukaj, Sr., Yorktown; Tarik Stovall, Sr., Stepinac.
OL: Andy Balcomb, Sr., Ossining; Alex Bowser, Sr., Croton-Harmon; Petey DeJoy, Sr., Bronxville; Nick De La Pava, Sr., Fox Lane; Eric Diamond, Sr., Ardsley; Brian Harris, Jr., Stepinac; Peter Harris, Sr., Mamaroneck; Henry Heller, Sr., Rye Country Day; Ben Jurcic, Sr., Hackley; Ryan Knox, Jr., Harrison; Eric Palese, Sr., Irvington; Eddie Schoenig, Sr., Brewster; Ben Schwartz, Sr., Hen Hud; Rahhim Shillingford, Sr., Putnam Valley; David Varian, Sr., Yorktown; Ryan Yetter, Sr., Putnam Valley.
K: Matt Pasternak, Sr., Briarcliff; Sebastian Pellejero, Sr., Harrison; Murilo Rosendo, Sr., White Plains.
DL: Mike Arborn, Jr., Tuckahoe; Cam Burns, Sr., Pleasantville; Jason Falasca, Sr., Somers; Brian Gardner, Sr., Dobbs Ferry; Corey Holder, So., New Rochelle; Malik Joseph, Sr., Iona Prep; Seth Oseghale, Sr., Carmel; Robert Pontbriand, Sr., Somers; Zeke Sierra, Sr., Sleepy Hollow; Jamal Whittaker, Jr., Gorton.
LB: Alex Anderson, Sr., Rye Neck; Kourtney Blanding, Jr., Woodlands; Shayne Forbes, Sr., New Rochelle; Jon Forrest, So., New Rochelle; Matt Gennarelli, Sr., Croton-Harmon; Tom Guzzo, Sr., Panas; Mike Linnane, Sr., Valhalla; Ladre Milburne, Sr., Mount Vernon; Ronny Munoz, Sr., Sleepy Hollow; Kristian Prenga, Sr., Saunders; Christian Riefenhauser, Sr., Mahopac; Anthony Rotunno, Jr., Westlake; Aaaqil Sheppard, Sr., Iona Prep; Luke Sweeney, Sr., Hackley.
DB: Michael Barbuto, Sr., Iona Prep; Steve Bencosme, Sr., Sleepy Hollow; Dom Brescia, So., Rye Neck; Tyler Fernandez, Jr., Rye Country Day; Wijante Holden, Sr., New Rochelle; Eric Meyreles, Jr.,Yorktown; Vaquan Tyree, Sr., Gorton; Mike Walsh, Sr., Putnam Valley.
ATH: Ryan Dahlia, Sr., Haldane; Joe Fraietta, Sr., Hen Hud; Shyheim Nixon, Sr., Tuckahoe; Ian Parnell, Sr., Hackley; Shoran Tamura, Sr., Irvington; Brandon Williams, Sr., White Plains.