The three-time defending Nassau II champions were familiar with Hofstra's Shuart Stadium and comfortable with their opponent, Wantagh, which they defeated in the title game last season.
The surprise to the Garden City players was that they entered the fourth quarter trailing, the dynasty on the brink.
When the time came to make game-saving plays, senior Justin Guterding came through, starting with an interception of Wantagh's Gerard Roche. Guterding later scored on an 11-yard run with 9:36 remaining to help lead No. 1 Garden City (10-1) over No. 3 Wantagh, 21-17, Sunday in the Nassau II championship game.
"I knew I played pretty bad in the first half and dropped some balls,'' said Guterding, whose team trailed by 10 in the third quarter, "and I knew we had to make some plays."
Late in the third quarter, the Trojans took over in Wantagh territory, trailing 17-7. On their first play, Brett Stewart rolled right and the defense followed, respecting the running ability of the dynamic junior. He quickly planted and threw a screen pass back to the left side to Scott D'Antonio, who ran untouched 46 yards to the end zone.
On the ensuing kickoff, Garden City pooched it down the field, and Brian Colamussi was able to jump on the ball for the recovery. Six plays later -- including a third-and-18 conversion on a Stewart pass to Spencer Bais -- Guterding broke three tackles and powered into the end zone.
"We knew we were a second-half team,'' Stewart said, "and we made some adjustments in the locker room and came out stronger in the second half."
Wantagh (8-3) controlled the early part of the game. Its first scoring drive covered 52 yards and consumed 7:10, ending with Andrew Martorella's 24-yard field goal. Its second scoring drive spanned 6:02 and went 67 yards for a touchdown, on a 5-yard pass from Roche to Will Fitzpatrick.
Brandon Watson, who had 65 yards rushing, 85 yards receiving and two interceptions, also converted a fourth-and-10 on a halfback pass play.
The second half belonged to Guterding, Stewart and Garden City.
Stewart threw three interceptions but made enough big throws, completing 9 of 17 for 120 yards. He also ran for 115 yards, including a 1-yard TD.
"Brett's just a fine athlete, he's tough," coach Tom Flatley said. "He can throw the ball and he can run the ball. He had a couple of bad breaks on the interceptions but he kept on ticking."
Part of Garden City's motivation to keep moving forward was a perceived lack of respect coming into the season.
"Many people gave us very little chance at the beginning of the year to even get to this game, and we got here," Flatley said. "It's hard work -- it's not the greatest team I've ever had, but it's a hard-working team."
When Bais jumped in front of a Roche pass to seal the victory in the final minute, the Trojans finally had proven that not only were they good enough to get back to the Nassau II title game, but that they also could keep their dynasty alive.
"That's the reason we're here today -- that motivated us," Stewart said. "People didn't think we could do it at all, but I knew in my head before the season started that we were winning the county championship, and now we're on the way to the Long Island championship. No one thought we could do it, but here we are again."