With just two teams remaining, we’ll take a day to focus on both Rye Neck (today) and White Plains (tomorrow).
First, here’s today’s package on Rye Neck. It includes my story on how patience has paid off for the Panthers. That is followed by interviews with seniors Thomas Pipolo and Ryan Morningstar, who give their analysis of Saturday’s matchup with Hoosick Falls. Lastly, check out my scouting report on Saturday’s game, including thoughts from both Rye Neck coach Nick Ianello and Hoosick Falls’ Ron Jones:
MAMARONECK — Thomas Pipolo and Ryan Morningstar still remember it. All Rye Neck’s seniors do. Who can ever forget the feeling after being pummeled 56-0 on your home field by an eventual state champ, one that had just as many men as you had boys?
“I’ve never been more scared to play a sport in my life,” said Pipolo, the team’s three-year starter at quarterback who was an overmatched freshman linebacker against massive 2010 Bronxville. “I was about to ask out of that game, but it was a good learning experience. It sounds bad, but going through that helps you get ready for the good teams you have to play in the future.”
Few, if any, of the remaining teams in the state playoffs were forced to stomach as much humble pie as Rye Neck. But those experiences, those 12 losses in a two-year span, prepared the Panthers for their first foray into the state playoffs.
After routing Burke Catholic in last week’s quarterfinals, Rye Neck (10-0) will meet defending state champ Hoosick Falls on Saturday at 11 a.m. at Dietz Stadium in the Class C state semifinals.
The Panthers are 17-1 the last two seasons, winning 11 of those games by shutout.
“We’ve been through more than any team, I would imagine,” said Morningstar, one of a core group of 10 seniors, most of whom started or played significant snaps as freshmen and sophomores. “We suffered a lot of losing, but I think that losing gave us the experience we needed to become the team we’ve become in the long run.”
By this point, the Panthers have matured, so much so that coach Nick Ianello said they point out mistakes on film before he does.
Their experience, which included a 3-5 season in 2010 and a 1-7 mark in 2011, has allowed them to weather adversity, however rare that has been of late. Take this year’s 41-40 overtime win at Woodlands. When the Falcons rallied to tie the scored late in the fourth quarter, Ianello was shocked. He dropped to a knee and buried his head in his hands, only to have Pipolo pull him up and insist: “We’re going to win.”
Looking back, Ianello said every lopsided loss — there were five by five touchdowns or more – was “the greatest education in the world in football.”
“Getting your butts kicked and coming back, what could you be alarmed about?” he said. “What else is there?”
This group of Panthers wasn’t always well-reared on the ebb and flow of rebuilding. They were undefeated as eighth-graders, besting bigger communities with more storied football traditions in the process.
The Class of 2014 arrived to fanfare and — as is typical in sports — fell under a microscope soon after.
“All of a sudden it went from us being the best, to what happened?” Morningstar said. “People were like, I thought these guys were going to change the program.”
Eventually, they have. This year’s sectional title was Rye Neck’s first in the state tournament era and came in the wake of a 7-1 season in 2012 that ended with a loss to Woodlands in the Class C final.
The Panthers beat Woodlands twice this year. Now, all that stands between them and a trip to the Carrier Dome is Hoosick Falls, the winner of five straight Section 2 titles.
“We had two really long years. It was tough, but we knew in the end that coach had always said the fourth year would be the year,” Pipolo said. “It’s turned out that way this year.”
“It’s come to fruition,” Ianello said. “And it’s been great.”
Class C state semifinal
Rye Neck (10-0) vs. Section 2’s Hoosick Falls (11-0)
When: Saturday, 11 a.m.
Where: Dietz Stadium, Kingston
Key players: Rye Neck — Jakob Calvini (6-2, 210), Sr., RB/LB; Ryan Morningstar (5-10, 175), Sr., RB/DB; Pedro M. Cueto (5-11, 185), Sr., RB/DL. Hoosick Falls — Brandon Hodges (5-11, 185), Sr., RB; Garrett Wright (6-1, 175), Jr., QB; Mike Matatt (5-7, 160), Sr., RB.
Outlook: While this is Rye Neck’s first trip to a state semifinal, Hoosick Falls is a Kingston regular. The Section 2 champ has reached Dietz four of the last five years, including a loss to eventual state champ Dobbs Ferry in 2011. Hoosick Falls returned and went on to win last year’s Class C state title. It has won 24 straight games overall and 50 in a row in Section 2. Last year’s stars are gone, but the backfield of Wright flanked by Hodges and Matatt has allowed the Panthers to outscore opponents 403-33. In fact, their defense, with five starters returning, hadn’t allowed an opponent to score in the first three quarters until last week’s 27-6 win against Ogdensburg. That defense will face the diversified offense of Rye Neck, which has rushed for 2,973 yards and passed for 805. Thomas Pipolo threw three touchdowns last week alone in a 47-6 thrashing of Burke Catholic. Despite its inexperience, Rye Neck will be no pushover.
Next up: The winner will meet the winner of Section 4’s Chenango Forks and Section 5’s Cleveland Hill on Sunday, Dec. 1, at 12 p.m. at the Carrier Dome for the state championship.
Rye Neck coach Nick Ianello: “They’re perennial state powers. I don’t think any trickery is going to work on them. They blitz peel and they do their assignments very well. They’re fundamentally sound.”
“They throw the ball a lot and they have a great fullback. They use two guys. They do everything well. They have a great screen game, they run draws. They do it all.”
Hoosick Falls coach Ron Jones: “I think they’re big and strong and to top that off they’re very athletic. They have a number of different athletes sprinkled around on offense and defense, so they’re definitely a very, very good team. This is what you get when you get to the state semifinals — every team is there for a reason.”
“We see some double-wing teams up here that are similar (to Rye Neck). They might have a few less formations than Rye Neck has, but the double-wing (offense) is based on the Wing-T. There are a lot of similarities. A lot of line pulls. A lot of unbalanced fronts. So we’ve seen it. That’s still a tough offense to stop when it’s run pretty darn well and run it pretty darn well.”
“I think the Section 1 Class C teams are always good on defense. It doesn’t matter which one of them we’ve played. Dobbs. Bronxville. Add Rye Neck to that list. They’re good. It’s that they move well, they get off blocks well and have a ton of athletes on the field. It’s a very sound scheme. You’re not going to outscheme that. You try to find whatever you can technique-wise to get an advantage.”
“There are a few guys who have some experience (on Hoosick Falls) who played a ton last year. That has helped us mix in the newer guys. It’s about halfway (newcomers and returning starters). We’re close to five starters back on each side of the ball. A few of these guys who didn’t start were getting playing time last year because we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity. That helped get them ready to take over this year.”
“They look like a team that is very confident. And they are athletic. They look like they’re well-coached. They’re very tough on special teams as well on offense and defense. The thing is, they have a lot of kids who if they wanted to be a one or two-guy show, they could do it. They have a lot of guys involved because they have a lot of talent. They’re not average guys.”