Valhalla quarterback Ralph Gonzalez thought there might have been some divine intervention on Sunday afternoon when the Vikings lined up for a go-ahead field goal midway through the fourth quarter and the Pleasantville defense blocked the kick.
“They blocked that field goal, I knew it was a sign from God,” Gonzalez would say later. “What we needed was a touchdown. And we drove down the field together.”
If it wasn’t divine intervention then, it certainly seemed to be a few minutes later when Gonzalez, orchestrating an improbable last-minute drive with the Vikings seven points behind, tossed a 31-yard Hail Mary pass that teammate Michael Ferrara somehow caught in the left side of the end zone with just 4.3 seconds left on the clock.
The Gonzalez-to-Ferrara miracle set the stage for the tense and dramatic two-point conversion that followed, a swing pass to Evan Parker, lifting the Vikings to an improbable and exhilarating 21-20 victory over the previously unbeaten Panthers on a spectacular fall afternoon at Parkway Field.
“It was just a dream come true,” said Gonzalez about the against-all-odds, nine-play, 59-yard drive he led in the game’s final 90 seconds. “It was a crazy drive. I saw it slipping through our fingers. You know, I took what my options gave me. I ran a couple times. The Hail Mary, I put all my force into that and threw it up to one of my best players and Mikey caught it. It was a touchdown. And when my coach said we’re going for two, I knew it was just us and we were gonna do it.”
Gonzalez finished the day completing 18 of 27 passes for 233 yards and two touchdowns. On the final, fateful drive, he twice converted on fourth and 10, once with an 11-yard completion to Joe Pecora and then with a 17-yard scramble that left the Vikings at the Panthers’ 31-yard line with 16.4 seconds to go, just enough time for the Vikings’ two biggest stars to find a way to topple the reigning Section One, Class B champions.
“I just tried to get open,” said Ferrara, who somehow found a way to return to the field despite injuring both an ankle and elbow in the fourth quarter. “He threw it up, I just tried to make a play on it. It was great. I don’t think anyone believed in us, except ourselves.”
The disbelievers had plenty of reasons. After all, the Vikings had already faced the two other preseason favorites for a sectional title — Ardsley and Westlake — and lost badly in both games, getting outscored by a combined 73-14 score.
“We were distraught,” admitted Vikings head coach Stephen Boyer following the lopsided loss they suffered at home to the Wildcats. “Westlake gave us a beating. We just had to go back to the drawing board and kind of just focus a little bit more in practice. Hopefully hard work and motivation will equal success. And I think we got our feet going a little last week in Edgemont, and the defense has arrived. We’ve been waiting all year for the defense.”
That defense kept Pleasantville off the scoreboard for the entire first half on Sunday. Meanwhile, the Vikings scored on their first possession of the day as they moved the ball 56 yards on four plays, finding the end zone when Gonzalez connected down the middle with Luke Ursillo on a 45-yard pass play just over three minutes into the game. The point-after kick by Anthony DiMiceli gave Valhalla an early 7-0 advantage.
The Panthers threatened midway through the second quarter, moving to the Vikings’ 29-yard line after a 25-yard scramble by quarterback Jack Howe. But after Charlie McPhee powered his way to the 15 on the next play, the drive stalled as the Vikings’ Max Cavallo sacked Howe for a big loss on third and two and then the fourth-down pass from Howe into the end zone couldn’t be grabbed by McPhee.
There were numerous flags thrown against both teams in the first half, which ended with the Vikings still ahead by a touchdown thanks to a Ferrara interception in the end zone with 1:15 left on the clock. The Vikings were halfway to shocking the entire section, but a lot of football remained to be played.
Pleasantville finally got on the scoreboard late in the third quarter, led by the running of McPhee, who wound up rushing for 189 yards on 24 carries. His two-yard touchdown run capped an 11-play, 79-yard drive that, after a Jack Martin extra-point kick, tied the game with 2:09 remaining in the period.
It took the Vikings all of 12 seconds to reclaim the lead as Ferrara gathered the ensuing kickoff near his own 10-yard line, moved to his left and outraced everyone down the sideline for a touchdown. The PAT try by DiMiceli was blocked, so Valhalla had to settle for a 13-7 lead.
“I just knew they had momentum and I had to do something about it,” said Ferrara about his electrifying kickoff return. “And I wasn’t going to let their momentum take over the game because we’re equal with them. But they’re a great team.”
On the final play of the third quarter, Howe completed a fourth-and-six pass to Jared Wilens over the middle for a 10-yard gain to the Vikings’ 25-yard line. After two McPhee runs picked up another first down at the 15, Howe found Declan McDermott in the right side of the end zone for a touchdown. The kick by Martin gave Pleasantville a 14-13 edge with 11:14 left.
Valhalla recovered a P’ville fumble at the Panthers’ 40-yard line with 8:20 to go. Despite completions by Gonzalez to Ursillo, Pecora and Parker, the Vikings eventually found themselves facing a fourth-and-10 situation at the 15 with 5:47 on the clock. They brought out DiMiceli to try a go-ahead 32-yard field goal, but his attempt was smothered by the Panther defense.
From their own 21-yard line, the Panthers soon picked up a couple of first downs, including one when Howe scrambled for 14 yards to the Viking 26 on third and 13. Two plays later, realizing they were running out of time, the Vikings let Howe burst through the middle for an uncontested 19-yard touchdown. But Martin’s kick was no good, leaving Valhalla still within seven points with 1:37 left.
“We let them score so we had a chance to get the ball back,” said Boyer. “That’s the years of experience. The kid looked around and kind of ran into the end zone, thankfully, because then we had a chance to get the ball back. If not, we wouldn’t have got the ball back, the game was over.”
Of course it wasn’t over because Gonzalez then rose to the occasion and calmly guided the Vikings down the field with the two clutch fourth-down conversions that set up his touchdown pass to Ferrara, a play in which he danced out of the pocket, bought some extra time with his scrambling ability and then threw the pass that helped put an end to the Panthers’ quest for an undefeated season.
“You kind of draw that up in the dirt,” said Boyer. “Ralph kind of just made some time and launched the ball into the end zone and Michael happened to get his hands on it, and thank God he fell into the end zone. You can practice that 100 times, it would never go. Guess what? Today it went. October 1st, the play went.”
Pleasantville head coach Tony Becerra probably had his worst nightmare realized when he saw Gonzalez find Ferrara despite double coverage and then roll to his right to toss a pass into the end zone to Parker for the game-winning two-point conversion.
“That wasn’t as disappointing as our total body of work throughout the day,” he said. “Here we are Week Five still making the same mistakes we made Week One. And it finally came back to bite us. Give Valhalla all the credit. They didn’t quit. Granted, things had to break right for them, but I think we let those opportunities present themselves for Valhalla to take advantage of it. Our sloppy play, our slowing momentum on drives with mistakes, all that lends itself to a game like you got.”
The game ended with Panther speedster McDermott getting a lateral on the kickoff and trying to find a seam to return the ball for a touchdown. But he, and the rest of the Panthers, were brought down to earth when Pasqualone managed to trip him up before he could get to midfield.
“This means a whole lot for the team,” said Gonzalez. “This means we know what we’re capable of, winning Section One. A lot of great teams here, but we’re amongst them. We rose to Pleasantville’s class and now we know we can go toe to toe with them.”
Added Ferrara, “We played like we should always play. It’s gonna help us so much. We knew we could do it, but now we have evidence we can do it and everyone else thinks we can do it.”