Dan Villari has never needed any extra motivation on a football field. This season he’ll have some anyway.
The Plainedge quarterback’s passion, worth ethic and desire to win have been unmistakable in his hard-driving running style and crisp and efficient passing. Yet the 6-4 senior returns with an incentive after nearly a year of digesting last season’s disappointing end.
The 2018 season was a memorable one for the Red Devils and Villari played a big role. It began with hope and a less-than-spectacular No. 5 seeding in Nassau Conference III, but turned into something special as Plainedge never stumbled. They were 11-0 and captured the county title to reach the Long Island championship game and that’s where disaster struck.
Plainedge trailed Half Hollow Hills West 6-0 in the second quarter when Villari took a hit that fractured the humerus in his left arm near the shoulder. His adrenaline pumping, he tried in vain to get Plainedge coach Rob Shaver to put him back in the game, but Villari was done. And, it turned out, so were the Devils.
Hills West blew past rudderless and deflated Plainedge to take the Class III title, 34-6.
Senior running back/defensive back Luke Lombardi said “everyone could see Dan was really hurt and when you looked at the faces of many of the guys, you could tell it took something out of them.”
“When I got hurt I think it crushed us mentally,” Villari said. “That was not the way that season was supposed to end.”
As good as Villari played that season — rushing for over 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns while passing for over 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns — he returns this season poised to surpass all that. His work in the weight room has him up from 190 pounds to 215. He has studied with an outside quarterbacks coach — the former UNH star James Brady — to improve throwing mechanics that will make him more accurate and able to throw deeper. And he is bursting with self-confidence after attending several summer combines where he saw he was as good , or better, than many highly-recruited quarterbacks.
“I see him competing in every little thing we’ve been doing in camp,” Shaver said, “There are no moments of complacency in anything.”
“I can’t lie: the chip on my shoulder is huge,” Villari said. “I’ve spent close to a year thinking about how our season ended how it might have ended if I hadn’t been hurt — and wanting us to have a championship ending to this season.”
“Dan is going to put on a show,” senior linebacker Braden Clark said. “Everyone is going to want to see it.”
Plainedge won’t be sneaking up on anybody this season after being anointed as the Nassau Conference III’s top seed, but it’s probably right where the Red Devils belong.
Plainedge (11-1) brings back a cadre of skill players that’s hard to match. Senior Dion Kuinlan ran for more than 1,400 yards and recorded 93 tackles and four sacks from his spot as a linebacker last season. Lombardi surpassed 1,100 yards rushing. Donovan Pepe, a 6-4 senior wide receiver/ defensive back, had more than 400 receiving yards and caught five touchdown passes and Doug Ellsessor, the 6-4 senior wide receiver/defensive back, had 300 receiving yards and three touchdown catches. Clark surpassed 100 tackles and had six sacks to anchor the defense.
“As good as we were last season, we’re better skill-wise,” Shaver said. “And we’ve challenged ourselves more by scrimmaging [higher classification] teams. Our players will have been in some tough situations before the season even begins.”
“There is a higher level of concentration and motivation across the team and you can see it how people improved themselves [in the offseason],” Kuinlan said. “And the way last season ended? Whether it gets mentioned or not, it’s with us every time we’re on the field.”
Maria Villari, Dan’s mother, recalled this week how her son wrote a paper in grade school about wanting to be a football player. Today, with him verbally committed to play at Fordham and with programs from the Power 5 conferences seeking to get involved, she marvels at how he’s turned the dream into something very real.
“When he wrote that back then, I thought it was cute,” she said. “With the way he’s been committed to that goal, and with him now going to college to play, I know he is capable of being anything he wants to be.”
As Hills West pulled away from Plainedge last fall at Hofstra, Villari threw some passes on the sideline and left the Shuart Stadium crowd wondering if he might be able to get back into the game. At that point no one was certain of the severity of the injury, only that Shaver would never put him at risk. After it was over, Tim, Dan's father, and Maria Villari took him to an urgent care facility where x-rays showed the break and he was sent immediately to the hospital where it was immobilized.
“By the time we got home, his adrenaline had worn off and he said, ‘Oh my god this is killing me,' " Maria Villari recalled.
It was eight weeks before the break was healed and another two months of physical therapy before Dan Villari could even begin lifting weights, “but I was always thinking about this season that’s here right now,” he said.
“Working with him [this offseason], he has been a man on a mission,” Brady said. “He improved himself, he got to see that he has a skill set that could play in the ACC or the Big Ten but will still shine at Fordham. He wants to reach his maximum potential.”
“He’s as competitive a guy as you’ll see and I know how much he wants to get back to that championship game,” Tim Villari said. “He’s going to do whatever it takes.”