The selection of Newsday’s All-Long Island high school football coaches of the year is never an easy task. There always are more than a few coaches who deserve the honor.
Sometimes it comes down to guiding the team to a county title or a Long Island championship. Other times it could be based on taking a struggling program and turning it into a success. Whether it’s about winning or improvement, it starts with the leadership and skill set of the coach.
Ultimately, we strive to make the best decision by considering all of the information available. We seek input from coaches, administrators and our staff. We report the score for every varsity football game on Long Island, be it with a reporter at the game or by speaking with coaches over the phone. We consider how coaches treat their players, officials and the opponents. To say the least, we do our homework.
And while the decision is always a tough one, this year was especially difficult.
The winners of Newsday's football coach of the year honors are Lindenhurst's Nick Lombardo and Plainedge's Rob Shaver.
Lombardo led the Bulldogs to a 12-0 season, the Long Island Class II championship and the coveted Rutgers Trophy. Lindenhurst came back for a thrilling 14-13 win over Garden City after trailing 13-0 to win the Long Island crown. Not much of an argument there.
The selection of Shaver, though, may have raised a few eyebrows. After all, Shaver came under scrutiny this season when he became the first coach suspended under Nassau County’s lopsided scores policy. It was a story that received national attention.
Let's start with Shaver's accomplishments. He did a remarkable job leading the Red Devils to a 12-0 season, the best in school history, and claimed the school's first Long Island Class III championship. Behind the stellar play of Thorp Award finalist Dan Villari and a swarming defense, Plainedge did what it had never been able to do before.
Three times in the past 14 years, the Red Devils earned the Nassau Conference III crown, only to fall short on Long Island’s biggest stage in the Class III final. Many thought Sayville's vaunted offense would be the difference in the 2019 title game, but Plainedge rose to the occasion and scored a convincing 56-20 win. Perhaps most impressive, Plainedge did not have a single returning starter on the offensive line, and yet the coaching staff was able to mold a championship team anyway.
Shaver received a lot of attention because of the suspension, but so did Nassau County's lopsided scores policy. There was no shortage of opinions on whether the rule is necessary and if the committee should have suspended Shaver under the circumstances.
According to Pat Pizzarelli, the executive director of Section VIII, which governs Nassau’s high school athletics, “a hearing can be held on how the game got to the 42-point rule and if it could have been avoided. The rule is designed to act as a deterrent to coaches running up the score. And if the committee feels the coach mismanaged the game, they can suspend him.”
And so they did.
The rule was first introduced for the 2017 season after superintendents decided there were too many lopsided scores in Nassau football. The rule stated that games decided by more than 40 points would require the coach to explain why the score was so lopsided. That year, five games were decided by more than 40, but no coaches were suspended.
The next season the rule was changed to 42 to make it a multiple of seven. Since then, six games have been decided by more than 42 points, but Shaver was the only coach to receive a suspension after a six-person committee determined that he left his starters in the game too long. Was that the right call?
Plainedge defeated division rival and previously undefeated South Side, 61-13, in the seventh game of the regular season.
Shaver's starting players exited the Conference III game after Villari scored on the second play of the fourth quarter for a 54-13 lead, a 41-point difference. The ensuing extra-point kick made it a 42-point gap.
Villari’s touchdown run did not break the 42-point threshold rule, and neither did the kick. The Red Devils exceeded the 42-point margin on an early fourth-quarter score by a second-teamer.
Let's be clear: Running up the score isn't good for anyone, and I've been critical in the past of coaches who pour it on late in the game against weaker opponents. But is that what Shaver did? He was facing an unbeaten team and the top competition in his division. Even South Side coach Phil Onesto said he had "zero issue" with the way Shaver handled the fourth quarter.
Still, the committee decided that Shaver was “mismanaging the game” and allowing the score to climb.
In light of what the Red Devils accomplished, should that cost Shaver coach of the year honors? We didn't think so, and we weren't alone.
We reached out to Shaver’s peers and found his body of work through the first six games showed he was doing what he could to avoid running up the score. He pulled his starters early in games against weaker opponents. He cleared the bench in most games before halftime, giving his second-stringers significant and valuable playing time. In two games, his starters barely saw one quarter of action. That all counts.
“Rob should definitely be considered for coach of the year honors,” Oceanside coach Rob Blount said. “To be fair, I would say there are a few guys in the discussion. But the suspension doesn’t take anything away from what he accomplished.”
There are deserving coaches in Michael Rubino, who guided 10th-seeded Valley Stream Central to the Nassau Conference II semifinals, and Dan Agovino, who led 11th-seeded North Shore to the Nassau Conference III semifinals. Most would agree that Freeport’s Russ Cellan is almost always a candidate for coach of the year. He led Freeport to a second straight 12-0 season and the Long Island Class I title.
Cellan threw his support behind Shaver.
“I’ll be the first guy to say Rob Shaver should be the coach of the year," Cellan said. “He is an outstanding human being and an excellent coach. He’s great with players and an educator in every regard. He had to deal with all that nonsense surrounding the suspension. He had to deal with his name being thrown around in a negative manner and the humiliation of being that first guy the committee dumped. It just wasn’t right.”
Said Blount, “Russ completely supports Rob. He told the coaches in our entire conference to vote for Rob for coach of the year in our association.”
Said Pizzarelli, “There’s many good coaches and it’s hard to pick one. I’m glad I don’t have to do it.”
This one was not easy, but we feel we made the right choice.