Michael Monitto last played football in the seventh grade. The athletic lacrosse player, in his senior year, was asked to join the Half Hollow Hills East football team this fall.
He’s happy he did. Monitto made the decision of a lifetime and one he’ll never forget.
Monitto made a leaping, juggling catch of a 7-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jason Spinelli in the corner of the end zone with 18 seconds left to give Half Hollow Hills East a 14-10 come-from-behind victory over Huntington Saturday in the quarterfinal round of the Suffolk Division II playoffs.
The comeback gave Half Hollow Hills East its first playoff win in the 61 years of the football program.
“It’s an historic catch,” Half Hollow Hills East coach Mike Maratto said. “Our sideline went absolutely crazy. What a wonderful accomplishment for our program.”
Monitto’s catch in tight coverage capped a 14-point fourth quarter for Hills East (8-1). The Thunderbirds advance to next Saturday’s semifinal round against top-seeded West Islip at 1 p.m.
“Mike came to the huddle and asked which route he was supposed to run,” Spinelli said. “He was drawing it on his hand to be sure. And I told him just run the out and the ball will be there. He has great hands and I knew he’d catch it.”
Hills East sent three receivers to the left, including star receiver Kendall Nero-Clark, who had hauled in an 80-yard touchdown strike earlier in the fourth quarter. Monitto lined up alone to the right flank.
“I wanted to be sure of the play,” Monitto said. “I asked Jason what the exact route was and I know it’s his favorite throw for timing and everything. I made the cut and had some separation when the throw came over the top of the defender. So we went up and I tapped it into the air and caught it falling to the ground. It was seriously the greatest moment ever.”
The drive was keyed by a 45-yard option pass from sophomore Nyrel Sevilla to Kendall Nero-Clark to the Blue Devils’ 22. Nero-Clark jumped over the outstretched arms of the defender for the catch.
Half Hollow Hills East linebacker Drew Martin intercepted Huntington’s final pass attempt as time expired at the Blue Devils’ 30 to seal the win.
“We knew they’d double cover Nero-Clark and we had confidence in Monitto,” Maratto said. “We played with such resilience and the outcome was determined by our ability to keep our composure.”
Huntington dominated the time of possession, and held a significant statistical advantage through the first half. But its inability to finish long drives ultimately cost them the game.
The Blue Devils ran 43 first-half plays for 201 yards and 13 first downs. Hills East ran only 11 plays for 57 yards and two first downs, yet the Blue Devils had only seven points to show for the effort.
“We told our guys at halftime to stay composed and that it’s not supposed to be easy,” Maratto said. “We were still in it.”
Huntington drove into the red zone on all four if its first half drives and only cashed in once. They missed on field goals of 24 and 29. And faced with a fourth-and-1, it tried to run up the middle where linebacker Ernesto Mitchell stuffed the runner for no gain short-circuiting a 13-play, drive that lasted 6 minutes, 12 seconds.
“Mitchell was all over the field making plays,” Martin said. “He reads the offense and goes.”
Huntington finally punched it in when quarterback Alex LaBella rolled left and tossed an 11-yard touchdown pass to Luke Eidle to cap a nine-play, 64-yard drive. Nat Amato added the kick to make it 7-0 with 3:05 left in the half.
Amato drilled a 24-yard field goal late in the third quarter for the 10-0 lead before Spinelli led the comeback.
Mitchell, who finished with 14 tackles, keyed a big fourth-quarter stop by the Thunderbirds with 2:43 left. It set in motion the final 72-yard drive and Monitto’s big moment.
“We left it all on the field,” Mitchell said. “We hung in there.”