After an exchange of offensive jabs, it was Elmont’s defense that ultimately keyed a playoff victory for the Spartans in Saturday’s Nassau II quarterfinal game against Mepham.

The brick wall that was Elmont’s defensive line limited Mepham’s vaunted ground attack in a 28-23 win on Saturday in Elmont.

Mepham running back Michael Valentino found it difficult to gain any traction against Elmont’s defense. Valentino, who averaged 139 yards per game this season, was held to 72 by the swarming Spartans defense. The final stop came on a fourth-and-1 run when senior linebacker O’Neill Pryce stopped Valentino at Elmont’s 24-yard line.

“All the praise goes to our defense,” said Elmont quarterback Aaron Ruthman. “They always do their job and we wouldn’t be here without them.”

No. 3 Elmont (7-2) will meet No. 2 Carey (7-2) on Friday in a Nassau II semifinal at Hofstra University.

While the defense slowed the Mepham ground game, Ruthman led the Spartans’ offensive charge. The senior completed 17 of 36 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns. Ruthman opened the scoring in the first quarter with a 28-yard screen pass to senior wide receiver Lucus Mathieu. He added a 42-yarder scoring strike to senior Sevin Malcolm in the third quarter to capitalize on a Mepham turnover. Malcolm made an acrobatic snag for the score.

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“We capitalize on mistakes,” Ruthman said. “We know that’s what we have to do and, today, we did it.”

A long kickoff return deep into Elmont territory helped set up a game-tying 4-yard touchdown run with 4:12 left in the third quarter. It was Valentino’s second short scoring run and tied the score at 16.

On its ensuing possession, Elmont drove 47 yards to the Mepham 12 and were stopped on downs when Ruthman completed a short swing pass to junior halfback Mike Djalo for a 2-yard gain and just short of the first down.

However, on the second play of Mepham’s next drive the Pirates fumbled at their own 12-yard line and defensive end Michael Holloway returned the fumble to the 1. Djalo burst up the middle for the 1-yard scoring run and a 22-16 Elmont lead with 1:59 left in the third quarter.

No. 6 Mepham responded with a 12-play, 50-yard drive capped by a Michael Proios 3-yard touchdown pass to Matthew Conry to tie the score at 22 with 7:10 left in the game. The Pirates forged their first lead of the game when kicker Kevin McCleneghan drilled the extra-point for a 23-22 lead.

“That could have been a huge let down for us,” said Elmont coach Jey Hegi. “We missed the two-point conversion and then they kicked the extra point to take the lead. But we drove the field and wanted to score and leave as little time on the clock as possible.”

Elmont didn’t run much clock as Djalo busted a 40-yard touchdown run on an inside run to give the Spartans a 28-23 lead. The two-point conversion pass went incomplete.

“We left them 4:15 on the clock, just too much time for them,” Hegi said. “But the defense came up big.”

Said Ruthman, “we know that any adversity we face, we can overcome it.”