By Andy Jacobs
For a good portion of Saturday afternoon’s season opener against visiting Nanuet, it seemed the Briarcliff/Hamilton football team was always just one big play away from getting back into a contest it had fallen behind by 21 points in the first half.
But that big play never quite arrived for the Bears and they finished with a 21-7 defeat to the Golden Knights on a perfect late summer day that raised the curtain on the 2021 season. Junior running back James Moran rushed for 142 yards and a pair of touchdowns as Nanuet spoiled the return of the Bears to their former conference after a couple of years competing in the Independent League.
“Yeah, we were one play away,” said Bears head coach Skip Stevens afterward. “I just don’t think we ever got anything on a flow. Both on the sideline, in the game, we just never got a flow going. But we’re really just young and I think we’ll get better as we go along.”
The Bears, fresh off their springtime Independent championship just a few months earlier, were quickly greeted by the stiffer competition Nanuet posed. The Golden Knights took possession to start the game and promptly marched 87 yards in 12 plays, scoring when quarterback Ryan Frondi rolled to his right, avoided a tackle and found his way into the corner of the end zone for a 12-yard touchdown on a third-and-six play. The point-after put the Bears behind 7-0 midway through the opening quarter.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Bears fumbled the ball away and Nanuet began another drive at the Briarcliff 38. Five plays later, Moran scored his first touchdown of the day from a yard out. Just over eight minutes into the season, the Bears were behind 14-0 and they still hadn’t run a play from scrimmage yet.
“They got the ball on a short field and they were able to drive and it was 14-0 at that point,” said Stevens. “They’re a good football team. Very physical, they have a really good running back, very talented, and they play very solid on defense.”
When Briarcliff/Hamilton finally did get a chance with the football, senior star Brandon Rispoli galloped to his left for an 11-yard gain on the Bears’ first play. But they were soon forced to punt and the opening quarter ended with the Bears trailing by two touchdowns.
The Bears took possession again at the start of the second quarter and quickly went three-and-out as quarterback Jaylen Savage was forced out of bounds on third-and-four at his own 41, a yard shy of a first down.
The Golden Knights then took advantage of the Bears’ inability to stop their running game and marched 78 yards in 11 plays. Moran concluded the drive-by fighting his way into the end zone from six yards out and the Bears faced a 21-0 deficit with 4:14 left in the half.
Briarcliff/Hamilton finally gave its fans something to cheer about with a nine-play, 64-yard drive that was highlighted by a 13-yard run from Savage and then a 24-yard pass from Savage to Rispoli, who outjumped a pair of Nanuet defenders at the 3-yard line. On the next play, Savage found an opening to his left and turned on the speed to cross the goal line with 39 seconds to go in the half. The PAT from Lucas Proctor cut the Nanuet lead to 21-7.
In the third quarter, the Bears threatened to get closer on their first possession, especially when junior running back Desmond Saw burst through the line and raced 19 yards to the Nanuet 28-yard line. But on fourth down, Savage’s long pass to a double-teamed Rispoli near the end zone fell incomplete.
Late in the quarter, Savage completed third-down passes to Adam Harris and then Rispoli, but the Bears’ drive stalled just shy of midfield in the first minute of the fourth quarter. When Nanuet soon advanced to the Briarcliff 34-yard line, linebacker Jayden Amador stepped up to make several big defensive plays, including a sack of Frondi for a 17-yard loss.
The Bears’ final chance to create suspense about the outcome came after a high snap on a Nanuet punt gave them the ball at the Knights’ 35-yard line. On third-and-10, Savage completed another clutch pass with a looping throw that a wide-open and diving Lachlan Coolen grabbed just above the turf.
But four plays later, Savage, under heavy pressure and moving to his right, leaped in the air before throwing toward Proctor in the back of the end zone. The ball hung up too long, though, and Moran picked it off to seal the outcome with four minutes remaining.
“I don’t fault him at all,” said Stevens about the final pass by Savage. “I’m glad he’s trying to make a play. But that put us in a spot at that point and then we couldn’t come up with a big stop. So they just ran out the clock.”
With one game against tougher opponents now under their belts, Stevens is looking for his Bears to build on what they showed in the second half against Nanuet.
“I don’t think we played our best game today,” he said. “But hopefully we get better every day. Yes, we lost the game, but this is where we wanted to be — building a program that when I took over had 20 kids. Now we’re at 41 kids and they work hard every day and they’re just gonna get better.”