The way Pleasantville football head coach Tony Becerra figured it back then, anyone bold enough just eight months ago to predict his team had big things in store for the upcoming 2021 season probably should have had his sanity questioned.
“I’d have had to refer them to a doctor,” he was saying late Saturday afternoon, thinking about the Panthers’ .500 finish to the abbreviated spring schedule. “Not just 3 and 3, but 3 and 6 the year prior. I mean, we were anemic the last two years, at best. So it was a total question mark going into this season.”
Becerra had just witnessed what seemed unimaginable to him in late March as his still-unbeaten Panthers took another huge step in a quest for the school’s second state championship. With super sophomore Daniel Picart scoring a pair of touchdowns and the bend-but-don’t-break defense rising to the occasion again, Pleasantville defeated Section 2 champion Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk 15-7 in the Class B state semifinals.
Playing at Middletown’s impressive Faller Field for the second straight week, the Panthers built a 9-0 halftime lead and then held off a fourth-quarter comeback bid by the Indians, whose drive down the field late in the game put the outcome seriously in doubt.
“Obviously I’m happy, but I’m also exhausted,” said Becerra shortly after the Panthers had booked their berth in next Saturday’s state championship game against the Maine-Endwell Spartans at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. “Yes, R-C-S is a great team, but I thought we should’ve had a lot more points on the board. We left so many out there with the penalties stalling drives and putting us in bad situations. And, again, our defense bailed us out like they’ve done all year.”
On a frigid and windy late autumn day in which 11 penalties were called against Pleasantville, most of them in the third quarter, the Panthers still found a way to come out on top for the 12th consecutive time this season. Picart’s 46-yard punt return for a touchdown on the first play of the second quarter and his one-yard touchdown run just over four minutes into the final quarter proved to be enough to send the Panthers back to the dome for the second time in four years.
The Panthers’ swarming defense limited Ravena, which had averaged nearly 36 points in its three previous playoff games, to a measly two yards on three possessions in the first quarter. When the Indians were forced to punt again to begin the second, Picart fielded the ball just inside midfield. He quickly bolted to his left past Ravena’s Max May, made a little cutback to avoid another Indian and then outraced everyone down the field into the end zone. John McCarthy added the extra point and P’ville took a 7-0 lead.
R-C-S was finally able to move the ball into Panther territory on its first possession of the second quarter. But facing fourth-and-nine, quarterback Luke Misetich’s pass was intercepted by Kieran Cotter. Though the Panthers couldn’t take advantage, McCarthy’s punt left the Indians deep in their own territory with 4:30 left in the half.
On second down from the 7-yard line, a lateral from Misetich to running back Franky Broadhurst wound up bouncing on the turf into the end zone. The Indians won the race for the ball, so the Panthers had to settle for a safety instead of six points. But with 3:48 to go before halftime, the Pleasantville lead was suddenly 9-0.
“Yeah, that was huge,” said Becerra about just missing out on the opportunity for a second touchdown. “Like I said, we left points off the board up and down all day.”
In the final minute of the second quarter, Picart snared a pass from Michael LaCapria along the left sideline and, coupled with a roughing-the-passer call, the Panthers advanced to the R-C-S 16-yard line with 15.5 seconds remaining. But then LaCapria’s pass under pressure in the direction of Picart was picked off by Landen Cardone and Pleasantville had to settle for a 9-0 advantage at halftime.
Penalties stymied the Panthers on their first two possessions of the second half and Ravena, unable to generate much offense up until then, was about to give its fans something to cheer about. On first down from the Indians’ 47-yard line, Misetich fired a pass over the middle to Ryan Southworth, who caught the ball in stride and galloped down the field untouched for a 53-yard touchdown.
“Yeah, Murphy’s Law right there, said Becerra, asked what he was thinking as the Panther lead was trimmed to just two points. “Going in, I never thought it would be a cakewalk, by any means. I just knew we had to do what we’ve done all year — not panic and stick to what we do best.”
As one team after another is sadly learning, what the Panthers do best is run their Wildcat offense when the chips are down. They took possession of the ball at their own 35-yard line with just over four minutes left in the third quarter and proceeded to keep it for over eight minutes as Picart and Cotter, who combined to finish with 202 yards rushing, took turns picking up chunks of yardage on the ground.
On the 15th play of the drive, facing a fourth-and-two for the second time along the way, Picart burst up the middle for a six-yard gain to the Ravena 1-yard line. He then scored his second touchdown of the game on the next play. McCarthy lined up for the extra point, but holder LaCapria instead rolled to his left before throwing an incomplete pass on the try for two points.
“I think it served two purposes,” Becerra said of the lengthy drive by his team that spanned the third and fourth quarters. “It was getting the second score and also eating a lot of the clock by going into that offensive set.”
Trailing now by eight points with 7:33 remaining in the game, the Indians were hardly finished. A 32-yard pass play from Misetich to Xavier Bermudez set them up at the Panthers’ 18-yard line. Dominik Paljusaj then ran six yards on first down. But two plays later, Cotter jolted Broadhurst with a big hit in the backfield for a six-yard loss.
On fourth-and-nine, Misetich completed a pass to his right to Southworth. But a half yard shy of the first down, the Panther defense made the key tackle that turned the ball over on downs with just 3:22 left on the clock. Soon the Panthers’ two reliable backs were making sure Ravena wouldn’t get the ball again. Picart blasted through the line on third-and-one for a 19-yard gain, nearly turning it into a long touchdown.
A nine-yard run by Cotter past midfield secured another first down and enabled the Panthers to then take a knee twice to run out the clock. For the second successive week, this Pleasantville team that even confounded its own head coach had put an end to the season for a section champion in the state tournament at Middletown.
“You know, we realized well into August practices that we had a good group of kids who bought in,” said Becerra. “It was just a matter of if it all came together we could do things, and that seems to be the case.”
So now Becerra will be taking his second Panther team up to Syracuse to face the top-ranked Class B team in the state and hoping to repeat what happened in 2017 when Pleasantville defeated Chenango Forks in the championship game at the Carrier Dome.
“Yeah, it’s gonna be very exciting,” he said. “Some logistical headaches that go along with it, but we’ll handle it.”
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.