Pleasantville senior running back Charlie McPhee has gained well over 1000 yards carrying the football this season. Chances are, someday he won’t recall that much about most of them.
But he’ll never forget the last six he collected on the first Saturday of November in 2017 — when he took a pitch from quarterback Jack Howe and rambled into the left corner of the end zone to put a dramatic end to a suspense-filled overtime in the Section One, Class B championship game, lifting the Panthers to a 27-24 victory over rival Westlake.
“It was the best, most relieving feeling ever,” said McPhee about the moment he wound up scoring the game-winning touchdown as the Panthers crushed the title hopes of the Wildcats for a second straight year. “I mean, all our guys left every single thing on the field the whole game. I crossed that goal line and saw the ref throw his arms up and it was the best feeling ever.”
In a contest played under the lights at Mahopac High School that will long be remembered by the overflow crowd that witnessed it, McPhee finished the evening with 168 yards and a pair of touchdowns to help Pleasantville overcome a 7-0 halftime deficit. His first TD, a one-yard run five plays into the fourth quarter, was hardly as seismic as his second but it gave the Panthers their initial lead of the entire evening.
A Rob DiNota 20-yard touchdown run with five and a half minutes remaining enabled the Wildcats to even up the score again and it set the stage for a pressure-packed finish filled with tension that only multiplied once the teams were forced to play overtime, then double overtime.
“I can’t describe the tension and I still don’t have any words for how I feel about this game, these kids, the moment,” said Panthers head coach Tony Becerra shortly after his team had received its newest championship plaque. “Hopefully I can find some words on the bus ride home when we meet with the kids back in Pleasantville. But right now I’m numb.”
McPhee’s winning six-yard touchdown run was the culmination of a half-hour roller-coaster ride in overtime during which both teams provided their fans with one thrill after another. When it was over, the Panthers were euphoric, the Wildcats devastated.
“What do you say?” asked Westlake coach John Castellano, still searching for his first win over Pleasantville since taking over the Wildcat helm. “I’m just snake bitten with these guys. I don’t know what it is. Listen, nobody gave us a chance tonight, I’ll tell you. Nobody. Everybody thought we were gonna lose. And, you know, these kids believed. They believe in the process, they believe in what we’re preaching and they played a helluva football game.”
To advance to this Friday night’s state regional against Section 9 champion Marlboro, back at Mahopac, the Panthers needed a little bit of serendipity. It arrived on the first possession of overtime with the teams tied at 14-all when P’ville was quickly faced with a do-or-die fourth-and-six situation.
Howe tossed a flare pass to the left sideline that was deflected by the Wildcats’ Dan Grossman, but grabbed by intended target Declan McDermott, who broke a tackle and then dove head first into the end zone for a go-ahead touchdown. Howe booted the extra-point kick that left the Wildcats needing at least seven points in response to keep their title hopes alive.
“That’s a good team, and we were right there with them,” said Castellano. “I mean, if Danny knocks that down, we’re gonna go in and score. Those are the breaks. Yeah, it comes down to who gets the breaks. They got the break there.”
It only took the Wildcats three plays to answer in overtime when they got the ball at the 20-yard line. Andrew DeBiase, who had run for 13 yards on first down, powered into the end zone from three yards out and DiNota booted the nerve-racking extra point to tie the game again. But if not for a penalty when Castellano called a timeout that he didn’t have, the Wildcats would have rolled the dice with a two-point try instead.
“You’re not gonna stop them, they’re too good,” said Castellano about the Panthers. “We were gonna go for two. We were lined up ready to go. I misunderstood. I thought I had a timeout on offense and a timeout on defense. They said I’ve got one timeout in overtime.”
The Wildcats got the ball first in the second overtime and quickly picked up a first down to the 8-yard line. Then DiNota, who had already run for two touchdowns earlier in the evening, scampered down to the goal line. But he was ruled down on the 1-yard line and, moments later, a false start pushed Westlake back five yards. On fourth down from the four, DiNota kicked a 21-yard field goal that gave the Wildcats a 24-21 edge.
The Wildcats’ three-point lead wasn’t sufficient because Pleasantville proceeded to give the ball to McPhee five straight times. On second and goal from the 6-yard line, he raced around the left end and just barely crossed the pylon, sending his jubilant teammates dashing to the opposite end of the field and the Panther cheering section into delirium.
“Double overtime, wild finish, sudden death, it doesn’t really get much better than that,” said McPhee. “We were saying we’re gonna have to stop them at one point and we did and we forced them to kick a field goal. And then we said now it’s our time to go on them, and we finished it.”
“I handed him the ball, I saw him running in, so I ran down to the other end,” said Howe. “I was just in shock. It was unbelievable. After the game, I was saying to the coaches that was the most stressful day in my life.”
The Panthers’ path to a second straight title and third in five years got off to a stressful start as they left the field at halftime trailing by seven points against a Wildcat team they had beaten by two touchdowns midway through the regular season. The deficit could have been even larger had Westlake not squandered the opportunity to get on the scoreboard on the game’s first possession.
The Wildcats took the opening kickoff and proceeded to keep the ball for almost seven minutes, driving 66 yards down to the Pleasantville 5-yard line before an errant snap over DiNota’s head on third down led to a big loss and cost Westlake a chance to find the end zone. The teams were still scoreless as the first quarter ended, but seven plays into the second quarter DiNota’s three-yard touchdown put the Wildcats on the board.
“I thought the first half played out just the way we talked about,” said Castellano. “Control the clock, stay on offense, keep them off the field and put points on the board. We did everything but put points on the board and I thought that hurt us.”
Pleasantville finally broke through late in the third quarter as Howe connected with McDermott on a 31-yard scoring pass to cap a nine-play, 75-yard drive. McPhee ran for eight yards on the last play of the quarter to start another 76-yard drive that eventually ended with him running one yard for a go-ahead touchdown with 10:15 left in the game.
But Westlake responded with its own nine-play, 73-yard drive. DiNota’s 20-yard touchdown run and his PAT tied the game with 5:27 left on the clock. The Panthers moved the ball into Westlake territory late in the quarter, but with five seconds to go Howe’s 45-yard field-goal attempt landed well short, setting the stage for the overtime drama that soon followed.
The Wildcats weren’t quite able to write the same storybook ending they did in beating Ardsley in the final minute a week earlier and now Castellano will have to figure out a way to try to win without DiNota calling signals anymore.
“One of the greatest players I’ve ever coached,” he said. “Really, one of the greatest, and I’ve coached a lot of good ones at Nyack. This kid ranks right up there with all of them. Listen, I was gonna put the ball in his hand. We were gonna win the game one way or another with Rob. He’s just a great player.”
Meanwhile, the Panther stars still have some football to play this season.
“This is particularly special,” said Becerra, “because we told the kids at the beginning of the year it takes talent to win games, but it takes character to repeat. And these kids showed character in repeating.”