The voice in Kendall Bruton's head, the one that tells him that failure at a time like this is tantamount to giving up on the season, was in full force during Lynbrook's 42-27 win over Sayville in the Long Island Class III championship game Friday.
"I have to catch this, I have to catch this one, this could be the game," Bruton recalled thinking. "I had to step up and change it around. It gave us a big boost."
With Lynbrook down by one and about eight minutes to go in the game, the senior cornerback intercepted Steven Ferreira's pass on third-and-6 and took it 43 yards up the right sideline to the 7-yard line.
Travis Lock eventually ran the ball in to give Lynbrook the lead, but it was Bruton who provided the fitting exclamation point to the Owls' defensive resurgence.
"We had a few blown coverages in the first half," fellow cornerback Andrew Mehr said of the Lynbrook defense, which struggled to contain surging Sayville in the second quarter, only to stage a dramatic stand in the third. "We knew we could stop the run, but if we could stop the pass, it would be all over."
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In the third quarter, Sayville started all three of its possessions on a short field - the Lynbrook 35-yard line, a blocked punt recovered at the 16 and the 29 - but managed to score only in the opening seconds of the fourth quarter. In the second series, after the blocked punt, Mehr (four pass breakups) swatted away a pass, and Connor Daly's pressure and hit on running back John Haggart broke up a second pass attempt.
On Sayville's next possession, Lynbrook stopped the Golden Flashes twice at the line of scrimmage before Haggart's 1-yard score in the fourth. The Owls had possession only twice in the third quarter, and never got beyond their own 16.
"We have that swarm-and- punish defense," said defensive end Mike Kozlakowski, who had five tackles (one for a loss), two broken-up passes and a sack. "Defensively, we changed it up a lot . We knew was successful, and we contained him."
Kozlakowski also had an eye-popping 34-yard run in the fourth quarter in which he gained the final 15 yards while dragging two and then three defenders with him before being brought down around midfield.
"We knew they were going to score points," Lynbrook coach Steven LoCicero said. "It was just about whether we'd be able to stop enough of their drives."
If Lynbrook wasn't always up to the task in the first half, it more than made up for it in the second, Bruton said.
"The defense really stepped up," he said. "They penetrated and got to the QB more. There was more time for coverages. Those halftime adjustments helped in just cutting down the pass."
As for everything else - say, his game-changing interception - that, too, was the defense stepping up in a big way.
"All I wanted to do was bring it to the end zone," he said with a smile as his team celebrated around him. "Close enough."