By Rob DiAntonio
Following an Irvington touchdown pass and two-point-conversion run, Briarcliff/Hamilton trailed by a point with less than seven minutes to play on Saturday afternoon. To make matters worse, star quarterback Nick Reish limped off the field.
But Reish went right back in and found Brandon Rispoli on the ensuing series for what was the play of the young season for the Bears. His third-down pass was tipped, but Rispoli was still able to make the one-handed highlight-reel grab and jet 81 yards up the right sideline for a touchdown.
“It was tipped and then I just had to slow down a little bit,” Rispoli said of the touchdown. “Nick just got the throw off as he was getting hit, which was insane. I did my thing and just took it to the house.”
Briarcliff/Hamilton then held on for a 36-29 win over the visiting Bulldogs to improve to 2-0.
“We have a great group of kids,” Briarcliff coach Skip Stevens said. “They get along very well and believe in what we’re trying to teach. I think they believe they’re in every game right until the very end.”
Reish explained his perspective on the pivotal touchdown pass to Rispoli.
“We ran a simple out route and Brandon made a big play,” Reish said. “That was really the Gillette turning point of the game for us. I was sprinting down the sideline and I was just looking back to make sure there weren’t any flags. I knew he was gone. He’s a fast kid.”
Following Rispoli’s score, Reish hit Jackson Mauro for a two-point-conversion pass over the middle to extend the lead to 30-23 with 6:07 to go.
“Our captains, Nick Reish and Conor Gualtiere, they keep us cool and our coaches know what they’re doing,” Rispoli said of how they kept their composure when they trailed in the fourth quarter. “Every time we go down, we just know that we’re going to bounce back.”
Irvington had a fourth-down drop on its next possession that turned the ball over. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Bulldogs had the Bears in business at Irvington’s 34-yard line. A Reish run got them down to the 20 and then he scored from 14 yards out to make it 36-23 with just 36 seconds to spare.
Irvington never gave in during the back-and-forth affair and scored on a deep touchdown pass with 16 seconds left. But Taylor Primack recovered the ensuing onside kick and Briarcliff/Hamilton took a knee as the clock ran out.
It was another big day for Reish. He completed 19 of 31 pass attempts for 264 yards and four touchdowns. He also had 16 carries for 81 yards and a score. Reish has 522 yards passing through two games.
Rispoli caught six passes for 179 yards and three touchdowns. Mauro had 11 catches for 67 yards and a score.
“This program has really come a long way,” Reish said. “We changed the culture around here and a lot of talent wants to come out and play football now. We’re finally getting the benefits from that. This is the first year I’ve seen it where we have so many weapons on offense.”
Briarcliff took a 6-0 lead on a 35-yard touchdown pass from Reish to Rispoli on the opening possession of the game. But Irvington responded with 15 straight points and held that lead until late in the first half.
Reish then connected with Rispoli again, and he sprinted down the sideline and dove for the pylon, scoring on the 34-yard touchdown pass. The senior quarterback found Mauro in the left corner of the end zone for the conversion, cutting Irvington’s lead to 15-14 with 2:36 left in the half.
The Bears came out with vigor in the third quarter, forcing a Bulldog three-and-out. Reish hit Rispoli on a pass to get them down to the Irvington 35. Two runs from Reish moved the Bears to the 9-yard line and the gunslinger hit Mauro in the left corner of the end zone. The junior leaped, caught the ball and kept both feet in bounds. Reish’s two-point-conversion pass to Chris Beard made it 22-15 Bears with 7:41 left in the third.
“That was huge and completely changed the momentum of the game,” Reish said. “They were kind of grounding and pounding us. We came out (in the third quarter) and we knew we could stop their run game. Mentally, I knew our defense could hold them again, and I think they kind of loosened me up and loosened our offense up.”
Irvington marched down the field, but had a touchdown pass called back on a block in the back. Jaylen Savage made a pivotal interception for the Bears to hold the Bulldogs at bay.
The Bears will look to improve to 3-0 when they host Edgemont at 1:30 on Saturday, Sept. 21.
“There’s no team that’s going to stop us once we start clicking,” Rispoli said. “We’re not losing a game. That’s what we’ve been talking about all year. We know how good we can be and we don’t want to lose a single game.”
Stevens, though, isn’t looking too far down the road.
“It’s one game at a time,” he said. “We wanted to play a little bit better than last week. On defense, we definitely did. On offense, I don’t think we did. I think we can get a little bit better on both sides of the ball. I thought on special teams we’re still not where we need to be. Every week, we need to get a little bit better and hopefully come out with a ‘W’ when we get out there.”