It seems apparent that the Westlake and Ardsley football teams are on a collision course for a semifinal showdown a couple of weeks from now in the Section One, Class B playoffs.
So this past Saturday’s matchup between the two schools in the final game of the regular season, with some playoff-worthy last-minute drama, served as quite a preview of things to come.
Fullback Andrew DeBiase ran three yards for the go-ahead touchdown on the second play of the fourth quarter and the Wildcat defense rose to the occasion with a lead-preserving goal-line stand in the waning moments as Westlake escaped with a 21-14 win over the host Panthers in a clash between title contenders that started the day with identical 5-1 records.
“Listen, we came on the road, we have a purpose,” said Wildcats head coach John Castellano shortly after his team stopped Ardsley on the 1-yard line in the final minute. “Our job is to return to the Section One Championship. We know Ardsley’s a good football team. They’ve got great players. We wanted to come here and just play. Have fun and play, and I thought we did that.”
The victory, the Wildcats’ third in a row since a midseason loss to defending champion Pleasantville, earned them the top seed in the sectional playoffs, which begin next weekend with a quarterfinal game against eighth-seeded Bronxville.
Facing an Ardsley team whose only loss also came against Pleasantville, the Wildcats had to overcome a 14-7 halftime deficit. After Rob DiNota had run one yard for a touchdown on the first play of the second quarter to complete a 13-play, 63-yard drive to put Westlake on the board, Panther quarterback Julian McGarvey delighted the home fans by tossing a pair of touchdown passes that gave Ardsley the lead at intermission.
“That’s my fault, I’m not doing a good job of coaching the secondary,” said Castellano after McGarvey had been able to convert on a couple of third-down passes and one on fourth down during the Panthers’ first scoring drive of the day. “We’re doing some things different back there. We have some young kids back there. But that’s on me, that’s not on them.”
The Wildcats got the ball to start the second half and wound up using nearly six minutes as they marched 85 yards on 14 plays. DiNota scampered 16 yards around right end to score the touchdown, then added the extra point that tied the game.
Ardsley was soon forced to punt the ball away and the Wildcats took over at their own 23-yard line with four minutes remaining in the third quarter. They proceeded to hold the football for another five minutes, running a dozen running plays in succession and taking the lead for good when the bruising DeBiase crossed the goal line from three yards out on the second snap of the fourth period.
The Wildcats had a chance to take command of the contest after forcing Ardsley into a quick three-and-out. They took over at the Panthers’ 43-yard line and soon moved the ball down to the 17. But the drive stalled there as DiNota’s passes on third and fourth down fell incomplete.
With the reprieve, Ardsley took over at its own 20-yard line with 5:45 left on the clock. But, moments later, the Panthers faced a dire fourth-and-five situation. McGarvey calmly completed a do-or-die pass over the middle to Vince Manzi for a first down at the Wildcats’ 35.
“Yeah, I was surprised he went for it because he had two timeouts,” said Castellano about the decision by Ardsley coach Dan DiFalco. “Maybe he thought he wasn’t gonna get it back, I don’t know. He did what he thought he had to do.”
With just over three minutes remaining, McGarvey came through on a fourth-and-six play, throwing to Henry Bretts for a first down at the 21-yard line. Another pass to Manzi gave the Panthers a first down at the 10 with 2:22 to go. McGarvey then threw to Bretts once more for eight yards, and suddenly the ball was at the 2-yard line.
But the Wildcat defense stepped up and stopped McGarvey short on a quarterback keeper. On third down, McGarvey rolled to his right and threw the ball out of bounds. With 40 seconds left, McGarvey rolled right again on fourth down, but his pass into the end zone to Manzi landed short of the target. Westlake took over and, three DiNota kneel-downs later, was celebrating a big victory.
“I was just proud of our kids at the end for that goal-line stand,” said Castellano. “That’s something. We’ve come a long way in this program of dealing with that situation — facing adversity and finding a way to fight through it. I thought we did that today.”
Andy is a sports editor at Examiner Media, covering seven high schools in the mid-Westchester region with a notebook and camera. He began there in the fall of 2007 following 15 years as a candid photographer for the largest school picture company in the tri-state area.