Panthers Roar From Behind to Win Regional Final

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Pleasantville’s Jack Howe throws his fourth touchdown pass in the Panthers’ 33-22 regional playoff win over Marlboro.

Not even an early two-touchdown deficit and record-breaking cold temperature could stop the Pleasantville football team on Friday night.

The Panthers used the throwing arm of junior quarterback Jack Howe, who tossed four touchdown passes over the final three quarters, and a resurgent defense, which blanked Section 9 champion Marlboro in the second half, to emerge with an impressive 33-22 come-from-behind win in the state Class B regional final at chilly Mahopac High School.

“They went up quick two scores and the combination of the kids not giving up and the coaches’ adjustments, they were the difference,” said Panthers head coach Tony Becerra shortly after his team had put an end to the season of the previously unbeaten Iron Dukes. “The kids didn’t panic. They showed their resolve, just like they did last week. They keep drawing on their experiences.”

Facing a Marlboro team that scored an average of 50 points through its first half dozen wins, the Panthers soon found themselves in a big hole for the first time all year. Iron Dukes quarterback Sam Mongelli galloped 50 yards on the first play from scrimmage and four plays later crossed the goal line from a yard out to complete a rapid 69-yard drive. The point-after kick by Mongelli gave Marlboro a 7-0 lead just under two minutes into the game.

The Panthers’ first possession of the bitterly cold evening ended with a long Howe pass being picked off by John Perugino deep in Iron Duke territory. That set up an 11-play, 85-yard drive Mongelli finished by running 13 yards for his second touchdown. The PAT was no good, but with 1:33 left in the opening quarter Pleasantville was still behind by 13 points.

“I just thought our defense needed to settle down,” said Panthers senior linebacker Nick Salzarulo, who would later be named the game’s defensive MVP after having a part in 15 tackles, including two big sacks. “We needed to stick to little things. We were missing too many tackles, we were just getting caught inside.”

Pleasantville, now 10-1, began to climb back into the contest on its second possession of the game. The Panthers, helped by a third-down interference penalty, drove 81 yards in nine plays, finally getting on the scoreboard with 9:43 left in the half when Howe connected with Jared Wilens on a 27-yard touchdown pass. But Howe’s PAT try was blocked, leaving the Panthers trailing 13-6.

The Iron Dukes immediately answered as Giovanni Frisenda returned the ensuing kickoff 68 yards to set up a 25-yard Mongelli field goal. But Howe soon bolted 54 yards on third down to highlight a five-play, 66-yard scoring drive that was capped by Charlie McPhee’s six-yard touchdown run. The Panthers’ try for a two-point conversion was stopped, so Marlboro’s lead was 16-12 with 4:55 remaining before halftime.

Marlboro, which scored on its first four possessions of the night and then never again, delivered one more highlight for its fans less than a minute later when Mongelli, looking like a young Fran Tarkenton, scrambled away from big trouble before finding the wide-open Perugino for a catch-and-run play that turned into a 72-yard touchdown. The point-after kick sailed wide, but the Iron Dukes still had a 10-point cushion.

With just over a minute to go in the half, Howe tossed a 21-yard touchdown pass into the right side of the end zone to Jack Minerva to conclude a seven-play, 80-yard drive. Howe’s PAT cut the Marlboro lead to 22-19, and the Iron Dukes’ Mongelli missed a 34-yard field-goal try wide left with just one second on the clock.

“Even though we were down at halftime,” said Becerra, “I thought we had a little bit more momentum going in, especially with the missed field goal before the half. The staff did a great job making the adjustments defensively and then the kids, we didn’t give up the big plays in the second half that we did in the first half.”

When the second half began, it took the Panthers just four plays to cover 59 yards and grab the lead for the first time all night. Howe connected with Declan McDermott on a 26-yard pass play on third down, then found him wide open down the middle in the end zone on the next play for a 28-yard touchdown. The point-after kick gave P’ville a 26-22 edge with 9:41 left in the third quarter.

“We saw that we can get those seams down the middle,” said Becerra of the back-to-back passes to McDermott, “and it was just a matter of being able to execute.”

Late in the third quarter, the Iron Dukes moved the ball into Panther territory before a Phil DeSantis pass was picked off by McDermott. The Panthers soon had an apparent Howe-to-Cullen Dell 36-yard touchdown pass called back because of a penalty and the fourth quarter began with Pleasantville punting the ball away.

Marlboro picked up one first down, but then was forced to punt. A short kick gave the Panthers the ball at the Iron Dukes’ 42-yard line. McPhee, who finished with 175 of Pleasantville’s 302 yards on the ground, ran for 15 yards on consecutive plays, but eventually the Panthers were faced with fourth and four from the 6-yard line.

The Panthers decided to gamble and it paid off. Howe, who completed 11 of his 15 passes and earned the offensive MVP award, rolled out to his right, then threw into the corner of the end zone where Minerva made a diving catch just before stepping out of bounds. The PAT by Howe gave Pleasantville an 11-point lead with just 7:28 remaining.

The Iron Dukes responded by moving the ball down to the P’ville 30-yard line. But consecutive sacks of Mongelli sealed the outcome. On the second one, with just over five minutes remaining, Danny Minerva recovered Mongelli’s fumble near midfield. The Panthers held the ball the rest of the way, advancing all the way to the Marlboro 6-yard line before taking a knee on the game’s final play.

Asked afterwards if he had been concerned about the way Marlboro seemed to dominate the first quarter, Becerra said, “Extremely concerned, because it looked like the first couple possessions we didn’t have answers. Again, it was the adjustments by coach (Brian) Maceyak and coach (George) LaMar that I think were the difference defensively. The first half was all about the field position, the big play and letting them off the hook. And we limited that in the second half.”

As a result, the Panthers now move on to face Section 2’S Glens Falls in the state semifinals for a second straight season. A year ago, the Indians trounced Pleasantville 49-14 as sophomore quarterback Joseph Girard III threw five touchdown passes. According to Salzarulo, not a single Panther has forgotten that long afternoon.

“Yeah, we’ve been looking towards this game,” he said. “Kids have been working out for THIS game next week. They’ve been looking at this game the whole time. Not overlooking anyone, I mean, we took it game by game. But we have wanted to play this team since the end of our season when we lost to them. I’m very excited to get a second shot at them.”

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