In many ways, Steven Casali's last play of the game -- a tie-breaking 2-yard glide untouched into the end zone to give visiting Sachem East the 21-14 win -- was his easiest.
With no timeouts left, West Islip coach Steve Mileti had his defense allow the score in an attempt to preserve a dwindling clock and end a drive of 7:50 with 1:41 left in the fourth. Casali, who smashed his way for 181 yards and three touchdowns on 39 rushes to carry the Flaming Arrows into the second round of the Suffolk I playoffs, finally got a break.
In another way, though, the last few handoffs of that game-winning series were his most challenging. Casali banged his head against the turf after a clean tackle five plays into the 16-play drive, and lay immobile before being escorted off the field. Five plays later, he was back. "I was a little dizzy the first few plays," he said. "But we did a few [sideline] tests and I checked out [OK]."
It was a tense moment in a tense game that had been preceded by a focused week of practice for the sixth-seeded Flaming Arrows (6-3), who had never won a playoff game. Sachem East drew the No. 3 Lions after suffering a 37-6 drubbing at their hands in Week 6, but "we believed we could do this," first-year coach Mark Wojciechowski said. "It is a great day."
Sachem East will play Sachem North on Friday at 7 p.m.
Despite going to the sideline after the hit, nobody had a greater day than Casali. Thanks to his efforts, Sachem East never trailed and took the lead on the third play of the game off Casali's 11-yard TD -- a score facilitated by Anthony Riggi's 60-yard pass to Brian Balsamo.
West Islip (7-2) tied it on Nick Aponte's 7-yard score on the next possession, but Casali was back at it with 10:13 left in the second quarter. He followed blocks by Nick Fierro and John Vigh to crash home for a 10-yard TD and the lead.
"The O-line did great," Casali said. "I followed them the whole game. I just pushed off the line."
With 10:57 left in the third, Anthony Santo -- West Islip's do-it-all QB -- pinched the ends on a fake handoff to Chris Belyski and cruised up the left side for a 20-yard score and the tie at 14. The teams remained stalemated until the fourth, thanks partially to a masterful defensive performance by Aponte at free safety, who picked off Riggi at the Lions' 8-yard line to extinguish a threat with 3:17 to play.
"You're going to the playoffs, so you know it's going to be tough," Mileti said. "They scored with less time [than we needed] and they won."
Then there was that unmistakable factor: "No. 5 [Casali] had one of his stellar games. We couldn't stop him."
Casali said he would rest, beware of any future dizziness and check back with trainers Monday.
He was on strict orders to not get over-excited. No worries: Saturday's heroics were excitement enough.