Sirens blared, lights flashed, horns honked and admiring onlookers cheered and clapped in approval as the bus carrying the Pleasantville football team slowly pulled into the high school’s parking lot on Sunday evening.
Just six hours earlier, and more than 235 miles away, the Panthers had put the finishing touch on a season none of them will ever forget – capturing the state’s Class B championship with a 28-14 victory over Chenango Forks at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse.
“Honestly, I’m still in shock right now. I don’t really know how to feel,” said Panthers junior quarterback Jack Howe amid the swarm of fans, family and friends who had surrounded the team bus as the heroes of the day triumphantly descended the steps.
It was Howe who ran for 151 yards and scored three touchdowns, including a 77-yarder less than a minute after the opening kickoff that enabled Pleasantville to get on the scoreboard first against the previously unbeaten champions from Section 4. His 58-yard romp to pay dirt and subsequent point-after kick with five minutes left in the third quarter stretched the Panthers’ lead to 21-7.
“Jack did what Jack does,” said Pleasantville head coach Tony Becerra, summing up his quarterback’s spectacular afternoon. “Jack was being himself, making plays and being athletic and leading this team.”
The Panthers, in search of their first-ever state football title, were clinging to a 21-14 advantage in the fourth quarter before senior running back Charlie McPhee capped a seven-play, 68-yard drive with a dazzling 26-yard touchdown run with just four and a half minutes remaining on the clock. Chenango Forks, making its fifth successive appearance in Syracuse, was then unable to advance the ball past midfield. Pleasantville took over on downs, ran out the clock and began a wild postgame celebration that left its coach filled with emotion.
“It’s beyond words right now,” said Becerra, trying to describe what it was like to watch his Panthers rise to their biggest challenge. “I mean, even though I had over four hours on the bus to let it sink in, and then to come home to this reception, it just tells me how lucky I am to be a part of this community and to be a small part of these kids’ lives. And then in some way being able to give them a memory that they’ll have for a lifetime.”
Chenango Forks did manage to tie the Panthers at 7-7 when star running back Jeremiah Allen scored on a six-yard run late in the first quarter. But Howe’s second touchdown of the day, from a yard out on fourth down three minutes into the second period, concluded a 13-play, 64-yard drive that gave the Panthers the lead for good.
The Panthers took a 14-7 edge into the locker room at halftime, thanks to key interceptions by James Daniele and Danny Melillo that put an end to consecutive scoring threats by the Blue Devils.
“Yeah, we were very fortunate that we were able to stall some drives with the turnovers,” said Becerra, “because I think if that had not happened, one or two of those drives would have been points for them.”
The Blue Devils got the ball to start the second half, but relinquished it near midfield on a fumble. They couldn’t score on their second possession either and the Panthers took over at their own 40-yard line. Two plays later, Howe replicated his first touchdown, getting to the right sideline and outracing everyone 58 yards to the end zone. His PAT gave Pleasantville a 14-point cushion.
But Chenango Forks answered with a 54-yard touchdown run by Allen just over three minutes later to close within seven points once more. It wasn’t until Howe’s touchdown late in the fourth quarter that Panther fans could finally breathe a sigh of relief.
Before the Panthers stepped out onto the turf inside the Carrier Dome, Becerra had been very concerned how they would react to their first game in the cavernous stadium.
“We told the kids in the locker room, ‘You’ve got to get over the awe of being in the Carrier Dome,’” he said. “’You’ve got to get over the fact that you’re facing a five-time state champ, 11th appearance here. And you’ve got to come out swinging. You need to set the tone.’ And they did.”
Pleasantville finished its season 12-1 after defeating three consecutive unbeaten sectional champions in the state playoffs by double digits. The Panthers’ remarkable run through the postseason may actually owe a lot to their only loss of this historic year — a surprising one-point home setback in the last minute to Valhalla five weeks into the schedule.
“That loss definitely set us on the right path to win this game,” said Howe. “Honestly, after that game, we definitely had a different mentality. I’m gonna say it was a blessing for us to lose that game.”
“It’s exactly what this team needed,” added Becerra, “because up until that point we were still trying to find our identity. That was definitely a turning point because I think we found our identity, we rallied around one another and we really went to work from that game on.”
And on Sunday afternoon, inside a big domed stadium a long way from home, that identity became clear to everyone – the Panthers are state champions.